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Friday, 7 June 2013

About the albatross

The albatross has a name that comes to us from Portuguese, where it is alcatras, and while the vowel change that might yield us alcatros is understandable, the changing of the third letter is most unusual.

Most probably, somebody decided that the albatross, being a white bird, should be given a name containing alba, the Latin word for 'white'. It is also odd that the Portuguese name for the albatross should be so similar to the Spanish name for a pelican, alcatraz, known even to those with no Spanish as the name of a certain Californian prison island.

The same word that gives us the first part of albatross also appears in an album, which is a blank tablet with nothing yet written on it, and so gave its name to the sort of blank book we use to stick in photographs or stamps (incidentally, many stamp collectors who care about their craft specialise in collecting forgeries, since imitation is the sincerest form of philately, but I digress).

The alb, of course, is a white tunic worn by a priest, the white of an egg is the albumen (albumins are a class of water-soluble proteins), an albino is a person or animal with a lack of skin pigments and hair pigments, so they appear white, and albata is another name for German silver, a white alloy, while albite is a white mineral.

One of the few alb- words that breaks the pattern is a fish, the albacore, which supposedly comes via the Portuguese albacor, from the Arabic al bukr, which means a young camel. The albedo of a planet on the other hand, is its reflectivity, the extent to which its atmosphere reflects radiation from nearby stars. According to current theory, if an asteroid strikes the earth, the mud and dust which is blasted into the stratosphere will produce something not unlike a nuclear winter.

When the dinosaurs were wiped out by the increased albedo of our planet, caused by the Yucatan asteroid, or the volcanic activity of the Deccan traps of India (which may have been caused by the asteroid in any case), theory says they froze to death, or starved to death because there was no food available for them.

Some biologists think that a few of the dinosaurs survived, because they were warm-blooded and had feathers, and that these dinosaurs are with us today, only now we call them birds. There would probably have been some food in the sea for a considerable time after the earth went dark, perhaps enough to feed a few primitive sea birds until the dust settled and the sun returned.

It may be impossible to test this theory out, but we certainly have seabirds of high albedo today, like the albatross, named for its whiteness, and then there is the penguin, which sounds remarkably like the Welsh pen-gwyn, which would translate as 'white-head'.

The problem, though is that penguins only pass the equator at one point, near the Galapagos Islands, while for the rest of the time, they live only in the southern hemisphere, while the natural habitat of the Welsh until recent times was the northern hemisphere. And to cap that, most penguins have a black head.

It seems that the name 'penguin' applied originally to the Great Auk of the northern hemisphere, sometimes referred to as Pinguinis impennis, which did indeed have a white patch on its head, and that the name was later transferred to those cute and somewhat similar southern birds in waiter's uniforms of black and white — except that almost every species of penguin has a small patch of yellow, which has to serve some useful purpose, though I have yet to find anybody who could tell me what it is.

Puffins, Lunga, Hebrides.
I for one will keep an open mind on how the penguins got their name, since they have a layer of fat below the skin, and 'pinguid' is a rare but valid English word meaning 'fat'.

In fact, so fatty were the penguins that their dried carcases were used as fuel for the boiling-down of seal fat in the South Atlantic in less civilised times, but that stopped before we lost all of the penguins.

The great auk, however, went extinct in the 19th century, hunted into extinction by eager egg and carcase collectors, selling into a trade which cared more about ownership than conservation. I have some notes on that somewhere, so I shall return to the demise of the great
auk later.

Right now, the penguins of the world are holding their own, but the same cannot be said for the albatross, because too many of them are drowning when they try to take the bait from long lines set by fishing boats. Once they are hooked, the magnificent birds drown on the line. This usually leaves a mate on the nest, who must eventually abandon the nest, meaning even more albatross deaths.

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