We recently declared the Dalmatian to be one of the most recognizable dogs on the planet. Certain types of critters are so distinctive that most humans can identify them with just a glimpse. Some of these animals stand out because of their size or shape, such as the elephant or the crab, but not necessarily their coloration. Others feature flashy plumage or fur, such as the tiger or the parrot. Faunae with bright outer appearances tend to exist closer to the equator than the poles. At higher latitudes, earthen tones and whiteness seem to dominate, allowing animals to blend into rocky, non-verdant environments. Every so often, though, a creature in these zones sticks out like fireworks in the night sky.

One of the planet’s most recognizable birds is sometimes called the “sea parrot” or the “clown of the sea.” These sobriquets make a lot of sense when you view the colorful auk of the northern oceans:

An Atlantic puffin - photo by Charles J. Sharp
An Atlantic puffin in flight - photo by Charles J. Sharp

Pictured above is an Atlantic puffin. The distinctive beak and eyes of this bird instantly betray its identity; no other avian looks like the puffin!

Three species of puffin – the aforementioned Atlantic puffin, the horned puffin, and the tufted puffin – populate the family Alcidae, also known as auks, and the genus Fratercula.

The Atlantic puffin, which is sometimes called the common puffin, is the image most people conjure when thinking of the bird. This bird lives, as you slyly deduced, in the Atlantic Ocean, spanning the colder waters between North America, the Arctic, and Europe.

The other two species inhabit the northern reaches of the Pacific Ocean.

The range of the Atlantic puff - graphic by NordNordWest
A horned puffin - photo by DickDaniels
Distribution of the horned puffin - graphic by NordNordWest
A tufted puffin - photo by Alan D. Wilson
Distribution of the tufted puffin - graphic by NordNordWest

The genus to which the puffin belongs – Fratercula – means “friar” in Medieval Latin, referencing the black and white feathers, which reminded some of a friar’s monastic robes. The etymology of the word “puffin” meanders a bit more. The name originally adorned a completely unrelated species, called the Manx shearwater. Through the 17th century, this bird was known as the Manx puffin. The Middle English words pophynpoffin, or poffoun, depending on the source, described the puffy nature of the birds. At some point, for some reason, ornithologists began applying the words to Fratercula arctica (Atlantic puffin) and it stuck.

The birds are rather large, usually about a foot long. Their wingspans typically reach between a foot-and-a-half and two feet. On land, they can stand eight inches high.

As is typical with seabirds, puffins spend most of the autumn and winter on the open ocean, only heading to land during the spring to breed, brood, and rear young. The nesting sites puffins enjoy add a layer of desirability among bird watchers. To avoid natural predators, puffins create massive colonies on giant cliffs. During the breeding season, they congregate on some of the most striking vertical slabs of the northern planet, such as the Cliffs of Moher. Photographers flock to Ireland, Iceland, Canada, and various other rocky coasts in an attempt to catch the colorful frenzy. Interestingly, puffins attempt to return to the same spot each year to lay eggs and mate for life. 

A puffin brings a meal back to its family - photo by Charles J. Sharp
A colony chills in Scotland - photo by Steve Garvie
A juvenile puffin lacks the telltale color - photo by Erik Christensen

The mating habits of puffins recently brought another distinction to the sea parrot. Scientists believe they may provide the first evidence of a new species emerging thanks to a changing climate.

Ornithologists recognize three subspecies of Atlantic puffins: F. a. arcticaF. a. grabae, and, F. a. naumanni. They appear morphologically similar, but differ in size. The subspecies tend to inhabit separate locations across the North Atlantic; generally, the farther north an Atlantic puffin lives, the larger it is.

Researchers at the University of Oslo, the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, the Norwegian Polar Institute, the Swedish Museum of Natural History, and the American Museum of Natural History studied the genomics puffins in a swath that includes the coast of Norway, Svalbard, and smaller isles between the two. On Bjørnøya, also known as Bear Island, the research yielded something interesting.

A map that includes Bear Island and Svalbard - © Sémhur

Samples of puffins taken before 1910 displayed that every individual on Bear Island was a member of the F. a. arctica subspecies. Meanwhile, the islands to its north in Svalbard only featured F.a. naumanni puffins. Genetic testing revealed that the earliest common ancestor before that point was approximately 40,000 years in the past.

After 1910, however, Bear Island became a melting pot. For some reason, F.a. naumanni began traveling farther south than it ever had. When they encountered the arctica puffins, the two intermingled, producing a hybrid species. This new species has since managed to move north to the island of Spitsbergen.

An examination of Atlantic puffin hybridization - graphic by Science Advances

What caused the puffins to start heading farther south than ever recorded? Rewinding models a century in the past is speculative at best, but the timing coincides with eras of industrialization, overfishing, and accelerating climatic changes. The researchers in the study hypothesize that the likely cause was climate-related. If this notion is correct, the new, as-yet-unnamed (sub)species of puffin would be the first documented to have transpired thanks to a climate-based change in Earth’s animals.

Currently, puffins are listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, one step below endangered. They aren’t likely to become extinct soon, but their picturesque appearance and tendency to inhabit gorgeous landscapes should land seeing them on any nature lover’s must-do list. If you go to Svalbard, you could even see a new species!

Further Reading and Exploration

Atlantic Puffin – All About Birds/The Cornell Lab

Puffin FAQs – Audubon Seabird Institute

Atlantic Puffin – IUCN Red List

Hybridization of Atlantic puffins in the Arctic coincides with 20th-century climate change – Phys Org

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