Using GPS tracking to conserve puffins

by ZSL on

The Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica), is one of the most widely recognised seabird species in the North Atlantic Ocean. Whilst the identity of the puffin is celebrated amongst nature lovers, not all is well for these charismatic seabirds. 

ZSL is working with the Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy Research (MaREI) to study the puffins to learn more about their key foraging areas and behaviour. 

Atlantic puffins on Little Saltee
Atlantic puffins on Little Saltee on the south-east coast of Ireland

Changing climate causing sea temperature rises and changes in prey distribution, are badly affecting the ability of the puffin to forage successfully. Looking within colonies, puffins are also susceptible to predation from invasive species such as rats. In 2015, the Atlantic puffin was listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and Endangered within Europe. 

Little Saltee is a small but stunning island on the south-east coast of Ireland that has a small population of puffins. The location of the island, close to the Celtic Sea front, and the ease of access to the island for researchers makes this a prime location for studying puffins. 

This summer, a collaborative project between ZSL and The Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy Research (MaREI) has been undertaking GPS tracking studies to assess the foraging ecology of puffins. Tracking studies are a versatile tool in the assessment of animal populations, and provide a key insight into the lives of individual animals. Using GPS tracking, it is possible to find the home range and identify key foraging areas for a population, as well as developing an understanding of the fine scale behaviours that animals undertake in an effort to locate their food. 

GPS and depth logging tags weighing just 9 grams were successfully deployed on eleven puffins. The resulting data showed that individual birds travel up to 40km from the colony and dive to 8-12m deep, capturing sandeels to bring back to the colony and feed their chicks. 

Atlantic puffin
GPS and depth logging tags were successfully deployed on eleven puffins

One puffin had also captured a small octopus! Events and projects such as these are exciting moments for us as researchers, giving us a glimpse in to the ecology of key species of conservation concern. 

The Atlantic puffin population is decreasing globally, with a predicted drop of between 50-79% by 2065. Studies such as these provide information that can be instrumental in identifying important areas at sea for foraging, and will hopefully lead to effective conservation measures for this iconic seabird. 

ZSL is working to conserve native birds 

Select a blog

Artefact of the month

Every month one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the month.

Asia Conservation Programme

Get the latest on ZSL's conservation work in Asia.

B.U.G.S Blog

Find out more about life in our B.U.G.S exhibit

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation

A new Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.

ZSL Shop

See the latest ranges, updates and special offers from our exciting new online shop.

Wild About Magazine

Excerpts from ZSL's award winning members' magazine.

ZSL London Zoo

A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo. Bringing you amazing animal facts and exclusive access to the world's scientific oldest zoo.

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Discover more about the UK's biggest zoo with our fun blog posts!

Discovery and Learning in the Field

Join the ZSL Discovery and Learning team as they venture out of the zoo and in to the wild.


Catch up on our latest Conservation Blogs


ZSL Whipsnade Zoo's elephant keepers give an insight into the daily goings on in the elephant barn.

Tiger conservation

Read about conservation of tigers in Asia.

Videographer Blog

One man is boldly going where no other ZSL videographer has gone before - the land of Mountain Chicken Frogs.

Wild Science

From the field, to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.

Wildlife Wood Project Cameroon

The Wildlife Wood Project has been working in Cameroon since 2007 to encourage better wildlife management in logging concessions.

Penguin expedition blog

Updates from penguin conservation expeditions to Antarctica

Amur Leopard

Amur leopard conservation blog

Baby Giraffe Diaries

Meet ZSL Whipsnade Zoo's latest (and leggiest) arrival, a baby giraffe!

Biodiversity and Palm Oil

Follow the ZSL Biodiversity and Palm Oil team, based in Bogor, Indonesia.

Chagos Expedition

The Chagos marine reserve, designated in 2010 and currently the world’s largest no take marine reserve, is a sought-after spot for marine research.


Science blogs

Tsaobis Baboon Blog

Follow ZSL conservationists studying desert baboons in Namibia.