Critter of the Week: Atlantic Puffin

  • Common name: Atlantic puffin
  • Scientific name: Fratercula arctica 
  • Type: Avian
  • Diet: Carnivorous
  • Status: Vulnerable
  • Geographic range: North Atlantic coastal regions 
  • Size: 10.2 – 11.4 inches, 10.9 – 19.4 ounces
  • Life expectancy: 20+ years

Did you know the Star Wars porgs were based on puffins? While filming The Last Jedi on Skellig Michael, Ireland, Star Wars producers wanted to create an indigenous species to cover up the puffins. Apparently digitally removing them is much harder than the entire creative process of making a porg. Porgs have become memorable characters despite having only a couple minutes of screentime; they’re a little dumb, a little cute, and very curious. 

Atlantic puffins, or porg inspirations, are some of the most distinguishable seabirds given their colorful beak and short, stout bodies. They are a favorite in aquariums because of their gregarious nature and funny antics. Many young children assume puffins are smaller penguins, but marine biologists would be quick to point out that these two animals are not the same. One, they belong in different avian families; two, penguins live in the southern hemisphere while puffins live in the northern hemisphere; three, penguins cannot fly, while puffins can. 

Atlantic puffins make their homes, which are little nests or burrows, on North Atlantic coasts from Canada to the south of Spain. They’re only on land during the spring and summer breeding season, during which they form large colonies. Like many other migratory animals, puffins return to the same breeding grounds every year and apparently reunite with the same mate, according to National Geographic. Both puffin parents participate in puffling care (has a cuter name for a baby version of an animal existed?) by incubating and feeding. Females typically lay one egg per breeding season.  

On two separate occasions, puffins have been observed to use sticks to scratch their bodies, according to a team of researchers from the University of Oxford and the South Iceland Nature Research Center. The puffin’s possession of a stick is clearly unrelated from collection of nesting material, since puffins prefer soft materials for their nests, according to the paper. Since primates and elephants have been the only other animals observed utilizing tools for “body care”, this behavior is also highly unusual for seabirds. These puffins are — so far — the only known wild birds exhibiting this tool-scratching behavior for body care. 

These findings are intriguing because it suggests that tool-using behavior in captive birds may not be solely related to being in a captive condition. According to the paper, the results lead to many additional implications in puffin or seabird cognition, problem-solving skills, and social learning, which can be very exciting topics for future researchers.

Puffins are seabirds. Their skills include, but are not limited to, being fantastic swimmers, fliers, and fish hunters. Their choice foods are obviously smaller marine creatures, like herring, sand eels, cod, shrimp, and crustaceans. As gregarious as they are on land, puffins are actually solitary for the remainder of the year that they spend out at sea. 

Like other animals, Atlantic puffins are greatly affected by humans and climate change. Pollution, predation, and resource scarcity are problems for many marine wildlife.

Oil exposure can be problematic when birds hang around harbors for food scraps or when oil spills are especially wide-reaching. This is because oil mats seabird feathers, which must be perfectly aligned to maintain their water-proofing nature. Holes are created in seabirds’ natural barrier that weigh them down and expose their skin to the elements. Attempts to remove the oil by preening can also result in the ingestion of toxins that kill the puffins. 

Light pollution doesn’t just affect baby turtles, it also affects pufflings. Pufflings emerge from their burrows after their parents have departed, and often mistake the local towns for the moonlit seas. Flying into town can result in pufflings starving, being preyed upon, or becoming roadkill. Nearby human habitation also introduces cats, dogs, and rats into the local environment, all of which are puffin and puffling predators. 

Puffins have also traditionally been hunted for food in Iceland and other Nordic countries due to scarcity of food. They have been part of peoples’ cultures and cuisines for centuries; many hunters still use traditional methods that require specialized skills. It’s not easy. In fact, Gordon Ramsay fell off the cliff and nearly drowned when he attempted to hunt puffins the traditional way for his TV show. Puffins are not the only seabirds to be hunted, and there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of puffins caught for food over the past few years. I personally think hunting based on one’s heritage and using the animal resourcefully is more acceptable than outsiders paying thousands of dollars to shoot threatened or endangered animals with a gun for a trophy, but at the end of the day, puffin hunting has come under close scrutiny by lawmakers and environmentalists alike. 

A major side effect of climate change is its disruption of the delicate Arctic food web. In the sea, melting ice and sunlight exposure promotes growth of microscopic algae. This algae in turn provides food for zooplankton, an important food source for fish, birds, and whales. One of these plankton consumers is herring, a critical source of food for puffins. As monitors of the marine environment’s health, puffins are strongly affected by the abundance of lower trophic levels and may also accumulate higher levels of pollutants and heavy metals, such as mercury and arsenic, because of the food they eat. 

When sea ice coverage declines and more sunlight reaches the water, scientists have found that algal blooms occur earlier in the year. This is a big problem for breeding animals, like puffins, whose breeding seasons are now out of alignment with the food production season. In addition, changing sea temperatures may influence the presence of herring and other cold-water fish. For the puffins, this results in fewer fish to feed their pufflings.   

All of this may seem downright depressing, but as long as puffins continue to exist (they’re also listed as vulnerable, not endangered, yet!) there will also be hope. 

One of my favorite stories is of Puffin Patrol, a volunteer rescue program launched in Heimaey in 2003 that includes young children in efforts to rehabilitate and release pufflings. Children and adults search for stranded pufflings at night, bringing them to a makeshift rehabilitation center. The birds are measured, weighed, tagged, cleaned, and fed. The participants also give pufflings a little flying encouragement by bringing them to the cliffs and stimulating a flying sensation with the puffling in their cupped hands. 

The effort to help puffins has surpassed international borders as well. Ramsey Island, just off the coast of southeast Wales, used to be home to thousands of puffins in the 1800s, but the puffins were eradicated once rats were introduced. Now that the rats are gone, the wardens are hoping that the puffins will show up again. In 2011, wardens placed 200 decoy puffins and in 2014, they added loudspeakers to blast puffin mating calls, to boost their chances of success. Even though puffins have not nested on Ramsey Island for over 100 years, people are optimistic since they see plenty of puffins hanging around the island, in the water. 

Another case of puffin comeback efforts can be seen in Project Puffin, created by the Audubon Society to reintroduce puffins to Eastern Egg Rock Island in Maine. Young pufflings were transplanted to Eastern Egg Rock Island, which was decked out with puffin decoys to encourage exploration, and reared in artificial burrows on vitamin-fortified fish diets. Out of the 954 puffins transplanted between 1973-1986, 914 successfully fledged. In addition, Stephen Kress, a National Audubon Society scientist, reported a successful 2018 breeding season with nearly 750 pairs nesting on Seal and Eastern Egg Rock Islands. He attributes this increase to the presence of more ideal fish due to the cooler waters in the Gulf of Maine. 

Atlantic puffins are an iconic species (it’s the official bird of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada) integral to peoples’ heritage and to marine ecosystems. They may be populous now, but who knows whether that statistic will change for the better or for worse in the coming years. The success stories of efforts to conserve puffins are encouraging for future projects, but we may also need to extend our attention to alter the broader picture of puffin livelihoods. Reversing or mitigating our negative effects on climate; implementing more laws that protect puffins, their food source, and environment; and spreading awareness on the issues they face should be considered as potential long term goals. 

Sources: Star Wars Fandom Porg, PNAS, ScienceNews, The Cornell Lab, Audubon, National Geographic, International Bird Rescue, First Nature, The Telegraph, BBC, The Washington Post, Project Puffin

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