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New research by Browne Junior Research Fellow shows lack of prey for puffins is leading to population declines

23 March 2021

Browne Junior Research Fellow in Biological Sciences Dr Annette Fayet is the lead author of a new study into the feeding behaviour of four different puffin populations.  The study uses innovative new technology to track, for the first time, the feeding movements of puffins breeding in Wales, Norway, and Iceland. The reseach shows that puffins on colonies which are declining have to feed much further away than puffins on stable colonies, indicating a lack of fish nearby for them to eat and feed their chicks. Puffins aren’t designed for long flights and flying is very energetically demanding for them, so this is not sustainable behaviour.

Investigating their diet by analysing the DNA in their poo, and also through analysing video footage from camera traps deployed near their nests, also revealed that in the large colonies in Iceland and Norway, the puffins have to diversify their diet to include less nutritious prey because their preferred prey is either not as common or not as large as it was before. As a result, the chicks are fed less frequently and with less food, and many starve to death, which causes very low breeding success and ultimately the population declines.  This lack of fish near colonies and/or their small size is most likely caused by climate change, which affects both sea temperature (which, in turn, affects fish growth) and the currents which usually move the fish spawn towards the puffin colonies. 

Dr Fayet said: “Our study highlights the huge impact that climate-driven changes in prey availability can have on seabird populations – here forcing birds to feed much further away than they normally would, and preventing them from feeding their offspring sufficiently, which ultimately causes chick starvation. Many other seabird species in the region feed on similar prey, so the effects we detected in puffins are also likely to occur in other species.”

Image: A puffin on Røst in Norway bringing small herring larvae for its chick. Photo by Tycho Anker-Nilssen.

Puffin with herring larvae IV © Tycho Anker-Nilssen