Seamounts Species Spotlight: Atlantic Puffin

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are a special area 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. Its unique geological formations make this area a biological hotspot, attracting many unique species. This blog post in part 1 in a series that profiles some of the incredible species that call this place home.

Atlantic Puffins – tiny 10-inch penguin lookalikes – are some of New England’s most fascinating and beloved seasonal coastal and island visitors.

These seabirds can both swim and fly, with top flying speeds clocking in at 55 miles per hour! Underwater, the birds appear to be flying, using their wings for power and their feet for direction as they dive up to 200 feet below the surface. Their speed is helpful as they search for small fish like sea lance and herring to feed on. Individuals frequently return to the surface with about 10 small fish stuck in their beaks.

Most of the fish caught by adult puffins from April to August is given to hatchlings for feeding. The birds typically keep the same mating partner each year, and produce one egg that they raise in burrows rather than nests. They like to create burrows about one to three feet in length in between craggy rocks, such as those found on Maine’s coastal islands, using only their beaks and feet. Once the couples establish a burrow, complete with a nursery and lavatory, they will share incubating and feeding duties through the mating season.

Atlantic Puffins tend to leave their mating grounds in August. For years, scientists have been stumped about exactly where these birds go to spend the winter months. But through the analysis geolocation data last summer, scientists discovered puffin winter grounds within the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area.

There has been a good deal of research done on these birds, in part because of their long lifespan. The oldest known puffin lived to be at least 34 years old; a typical lifespan is about 20 years.

Despite this longer than usual lifespan, Atlantic Puffin populations struggle with longevity, facing continued threats from human activities like overharvesting and habitat disruption. Overharvesting impacts both food sources and the Atlantic Puffin themselves. Because they are a small and easy target for hunting (outlawed in the U.S., but legal in Iceland and the Faroe Islands), and because they prey on fish species that humans also rely on, these birds are quite vulnerable to human behavior.

Atlantic Puffins in northern New England, in fact, were only recently brought back from the brink of extinction, despite having once been prolific on Maine’s islands (and still enjoying steady population levels in more northern habitats).

Protecting habitat for puffin colonies is especially important, because they return to the same areas each year for breeding and possibly for wintering. If humans don’t protect these places, the future of Atlantic Puffin populations are increasingly uncertain.

Read more about the efforts to restore this species at the Puffin Project website.