Atlantic Puffin

  • Polar bears playing at the Eclipse Sound floe edge
    Atlantic Puffin holding plant roots in its beak. Newfoundland, Canada.

    Photo by Greg Johnson on Unsplash.

  • Atlantic Puffin with its wings outstretched. Borgarfjörður, Iceland.

    Photo by Bernd Dittrich on Unsplash.

  • Atlantic Puffin holding fish in its beak. Grímseyjarhreppur, Hálshreppur, Iceland.
  • Atlantic Puffin standing on a grassy mound. Borgarfjörður, Iceland.

    Photo by Bernd Dittrich on Unsplash.

Quick Facts

Scientific name:
Fratercula arctica
Indigenous name:
Siggolutuk (Nunatsiavummiutut), munaikutanish (Eastern Innu), munaikutan (Western Innu), qilanngaq (Greenlandic)
IUCN conservation status:

Vulnerable (assessed August 7, 2018)

Genome sequenced?
No. of chromosomes:
Size of genome:

Did You Know?

  • It is also known as the Common Puffin and was designated as the official bird of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1992.
  • The three subspecies of Atlantic Puffins are F. a. arctica, F. a. grabae and F. a. naumanni.
  • Their beak changes colour during the year. In winter, the beak has a dull grey colour and becomes orange, blue and yellow during the breeding season in spring.
  • They are also famous as “little brothers of the north” for the black and white shade of their bodies, which resembles the garments of definite religious communities.
  • Due to their bright facial colour, these are also known as “Sea Clowns” and are frequently featured on calendars and posters, making them one of Canada's most famous and well-liked seabirds.
  • It can catch up to 61 fish in its bill at a time.
  • Atlantic Puffins spend most of their time at sea, can hold their breath for up to a minute, and dive up to 60 meters underwater.
  • Atlantic Puffins have an average life span of 20 years.
  • Atlantic Puffins may be loud on land but incredibly silent at sea.

Life History

One of the four species of puffins, the Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica), is the smallest and only one to inhabit the North Atlantic Ocean. The Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) and the Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata) are the two related species found in the Northeastern Pacific. The third species is Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata), the extant species of the genus Cerorhinca). Due to its close relation with puffins, it is called the Rhinoceros Puffin.

Atlantic Puffins spend most of their life in the sea and reach ashore only during the breeding season. On land, they wobble slightly from side to side and waddle like penguins. They use their wings as flippers to dive and swim underwater. Although they can dive deep, they most often forage in shallower areas.

Atlantic Puffins are piscivorous, and their diet consists of small fish around 2 to 6 inches long, mainly sand lance, sprat, capelin, herring, hake, and cod. Sometimes, they eat other fishes, crustaceans, squid, and marine worms without alternatives.

They are gregarious birds at the breeding colonies and frequently build their nesting burrows close to one another. Atlantic Puffins maintain monogamous pairs with their partners and frequently return to the same burrow for several years. The clutch size of Atlantic Puffin is one — they lay a single egg in April or early May, and both parents incubate for 36–45 days.

Importance in Indigenous Culture

Labrador Inuit considered the Atlantic Puffin as a good source of food. They used nets to hunt them. The hunter would hold a long stick with the woven net connected to it, steadying himself along a cliffside while he waited for a flock to pass.

Conservation Issues

The significant threats responsible for the decline in the populations of Atlantic Puffins are climate change, oil spills, predation by invasive species (such as rats), over harvesting of eggs and adults, and anthropogenic disturbances during the breeding season, which also affect the species.

The puffin is particularly vulnerable to pollutants, such as oil spills, because it lives in the open ocean.

Elliot et al. (1992) performed a heavy metal analysis on seabirds collected from breeding colonies in Atlantic Canada. Cadmium (Cd) and metallothionein (MT) concentrations were reported in the kidneys of Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica).

Atlantic Puffins have been identified as a priority conservation species in the Bird Conservation Region Strategies in each of Canada’s Bird Conservation Regions (BCRs).

Role of Genomics

According to Kersten et al. (2021), their study highlights the power of whole genome data to explain the unexpected population structure in the seabird species and its importance for taxonomy, evolution, and conservation. Much of the seabird population genetics and genomics research has been based on mitochondrial and microsatellite data, which have the restricted power to characterize other factors that determine gene flow and population structure. Therefore, high-resolution nuclear data is essential to determine the evolutionary significance of the populations of the species.

Seabirds can fly over great distances. Therefore, it is essential to know if the genetic diversity is evenly spread amongst all puffins or if different colonies become more genetically different over time.

Research by Hakkinen et al. (2022) suggests that puffins will lose about 70% of their nesting grounds by the end of the century due to the impacts of climate change.

Considering the impact of climate change on seabirds, it is essential to conserve the present genetic variation of the species. For better monitoring of the populations and the identification of invasive species, the application of eDNA techniques would be beneficial.


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