Puffins’ Migration Mystery Begins to Unravel

Written by on August 10, 2011 in Marine Life
Atlantic Puffins. Photo Credit: Michael Haferkamp

Photo Credit: Michael Haferkamp


By Henry Workman
Marine Science Today Writer

The Atlantic Puffin is a species of monogamous seabird with a long history in the arts and culture, thanks to its distinctive appearance and unique habits during mating season.  During the summer months breeding pairs can be found sparsely distributed throughout northeastern America, as far north as the arctic, and much of western Europe.  Human sightings are rare, however, because of puffins’ tendency to prefer islands far from the coast, such that they protect themselves from land-bound predators.

Although today the Atlantic Puffin enjoys a highly stable population status, they are nonetheless a frequent subject of research in the field of ecology, with studies’ primary concern being to benefit reestablishment of local populations.  Overhunting in the late 19th century was to blame for the birds’ disappearance from many regions, but decades of restoration efforts have yielded many successes.  One gray area of the studies done on puffins has persisted, however, resulting in an inability to keep track of them during the winter.  This is the question of their migration habits.

The mystery of where puffins go at the end of their mating season stems from the difficulty associated with tracking them.  Puffins are typically found alone or in very small groups when not gathered in great numbers for breeding.  Their scarcity and the inconsistency of where they can be found during this time make predicting the puffins’ movement a constant challenge.  Problems arise when they return in drastically reduced numbers to their breeding grounds the following season, which has been observed to occasionally happen.

Now, a new study from the University of Oxford, with the help of the British Antarctic Survey and Microsoft Research Cambridge, has shed light on the particulars of this question for the first time.  An experiment was carried out employing the use of a technology known as geolocator tags, devices which enable somewhat detailed tracking of the birds’ movements without hindering them in any way.  Eighteen birds were tracked in the first year of data collection, with 8 of those used for additional data the following season.

As it turns out, each individual puffin follows a highly specialized route for itself.  Paths proved to vary greatly both in the chosen direction of migration and in the distance from the original colony.  Of the routes tracked, no geographical pattern or concentration in any particular region was observed.  This may be the result of the puffins’ following food sources, such as sand eels.  Interestingly, though, all of the individuals tracked two consecutive years were shown to follow the same route both times.  This indicates a memory-based method of navigation, possibly originating from exploration in pre-breeding years.

These findings come as a surprise in light of the results researchers expected to find.  Professor Tim Guilford, co-leader of the project, was sure the explanation would involve a genetically-controlled migration.  This had to be ruled out, however, due to the migrations’ variability.  Learning the routes from older puffins also seems unlikely, since it was found that adolescents tend to leave their colony well in advance of their parents.  According to Professor Guilford, the next step is to trace genetic relationships between tracked puffins.


You can find the full study here: PLoS ONE: A Dispersive Migration in the Atlantic Puffin and Its Implications for Migratory Navi

Copyright © 2011 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC.

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