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 

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