The Albatross, Booger Edibility


I have read many a time that albatross spend most of their lives out over the ocean and never come ashore. Well, I guess they have to come ashore to lay their eggs. If an albatross spends most of its life over the ocean, where the hell does it sleep? It certainly can’t fall asleep in the air, gliding around, can it?

— Bob, telephonically

You might need eight solid every night, but not an albatross. They’re Xtremes of the bird world in many ways. Snoozing is one of them. But so is flying, size, reproduction, and on and on. They don’t “sleep” on the wing, but traveling thousands of miles or several days without resting doesn’t wear them out very much, so sleep isn’t an urgent necessity.

Unlike all other birds (except the swift), the albatross is designed for soaring — gliding — not wing flapping. They have very underdeveloped flapping muscles but very special soaring muscles. First of all, the largest albatross has a wingspan of 11 to 12 feet. Huge, compared to body size. The smallest species has a 6-foot span. And at the bird’s “shoulder,” where the wing meets the body, is a special locking tendon that holds the wings outspread without any effort on the bird’s part. Scientific studies have shown that a soaring albatross has about the same heart rate as a resting albatross.

So how does an albatross motivate if it doesn’t flap its wings? It relies on its extreme sensitivity to air currents coming off ocean waves and other sea-level currents. They are such efficient soarers that they can take maximum advantage of air-current energy. For instance, they gain altitude from certain updrafts that come from the front of a wave. Once aloft, they have a 22:1 glide ratio; the bird moves forward 22 feet for every foot of altitude lost.

So when does an albatross sleep? When it’s not at its nesting site, it naps while resting on the water. At least that’s science’s best guess. They long thought the birds must sleep on the wing, since they’re aloft for so many hours. There’s a small faction that thinks an albatross sleeps the same way dolphins do, one brain hemisphere at a time, always keeping part of the brain alert for danger. The jury’s still out, but it’s 11 to 1 in favor of the sleep-on-the-water theory.

They have plenty of time to sleep when they’re at the nesting site. At best, they lay one egg once a year. More likely every two or three years. (The eggs weigh anywhere from 1 to 22 pounds, depending on species.) Parents incubate it for about two months. The chicks mature slowly and spend years at the nesting site. They might not reproduce until they’re preteens or even teenagers. No surprise, with such a low reproduction rate, albatrosses are threatened. They can’t overcome the problem of overfishing, which has reduced their food supply; floating ocean trash; fishing nets; and other man-made things.

Matthew Alice:

What can I get if I eat my own boogers? Not somebody else’s. My mother said I can get sick from it.

— Joshua, via email

Hi, Joshua. Most doctors, including our own staff quack, Dr. Doctor, would say Mom’s right on. Boogers are made up of germs and bacteria that your nose hairs and nose goo have filtered out of the air, so if you swallow them, you run the risk of illness. After all, the whole idea of boogers is to keep bad stuff out of your body. Most snot-encrusted nose bugs are dead, but some might still be living.

There is one infamous doctor in Austria who thinks outside the booger box. He sees nose goo as a potential vaccine against diseases. He claims we’d all be healthier and happier if we spent more hours digging away than eating what we come up with. Sez the doc, expose our bodies to the germs and we’ll develop an immunity to the diseases. He doesn’t have a large professional following. But he does have all the earmarks of a mythical figure, batted from blog to blog around the Internet as a real doctor, when it might be a made-up story, for all we can tell.

Either way, eating boogers carries some risk. You actually are in most danger from too-enthusiastic nasal excavation. It’s very possible for you to break the skin inside your nose and introduce infection from your germy hands. Infections in the nasal area are some of the most likely to spread to the brain.

Grandma demands equal time here. She’s our etiquette master, and she says what your mom is really saying is, “Stop picking your nose! It’s a disgusting habit that no one should do in public, and I don’t want the neighbors thinking that I let you do that. I’ll be humiliated!” So maybe you should do what King Tut did. The ancient Egyptian was so pampered, he had on his staff a personal nose picker. At least that’s what the archaeologists say.

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Hi Matt: How about condors/vultures/buzzards? They soar like naturals. Same with boobies and frigate birds. Albatrosses and swifts can't be the only charter members of the soaring club, can they?

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