Genus Fratercula consists of three extant species, all of which are commonly referred to as "puffins." Belonging to family Alcidae, puffins are distinguishable by their large, colorful beaks and black/white plumage (Cushman, 2022). The most common puffin is Fratercula arctica, which can be found in the majority of Iceland. These puffins were named in 1760 by French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson. This occurred alongside the creation of the genus Fratercula, meaning "little brother," referencing the visual similarity of the puffins' plumage to monastic robes ("Fratercula Brisson 1760", 2022). While not endangered, several species are threatened by oil spills and overfishing (Cushman, 2022). (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022; Cushman, 2022; "Fratercula Brisson 1760", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022)

Geographic Range

Fratercula species can be found in the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as the Nearctic and Palearctic regions. Sxity percent of F. arctica populations live near Iceland, strictly in the Atlantic ocean. F. corniculata range from southern sea waters to California, returning to breed in ranges from northwestern Alaska to the coast of the Alaska British Columbia border ("Puffin FAQs", 2022). F. cirrhata range from northwestern Alaska to California, and they spend winters in the sea throughout the northern Pacific. Both F. corniculata and F. cirrhata are also found along the northern coasts of Asia ("Puffin FAQs", 2022). ("Fratercula Brisson 1760", 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022)


Fratercula species inhabit open waters, made possible by their waterproof feathers which allow them to dive for small fish (eels and herring) as well as zooplankton. Puffins are also capable of flight, allowing them to breed on small islands. They either build their nests in rocky crevices/cliff faces or in the turf soil on top of cliffs ("Atlantic Puffin", 2022). It is here that parents raise their young until they are capable of flight themselves and can migrate to open waters. Mated pairs will often return to their burrows yearly to reproduce. (Cushman, 2022; "Fratercula Brisson 1760", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022; The Cornell Lab, 2022)

Systematic and Taxonomic History

Fratercula was first introduced by Mathurin Jacques Brisson, with F. arctica being the key species. The word "fratercula" translates to "little brother" in Latin ("Fratercula Brisson 1760", 2022). ("Fratercula Brisson 1760", 2022)

  • Synonyms
    • Puffins

Physical Description

Fratercula species can be identified mainly by their large beaks, which are brightly colored during their breeding season. They are stocky and have an average height of 10 inches. While there have been some observations of males being larger than females, the two sexes are typically the same height and have similar appearances (Burnham et al., 2020). Puffins are typically black with white or "muddy" colored underparts, white faces, and short wings and tails. Their feet are orange-red, and when not in the breeding season, their beaks tend to be duller and smaller than what is commonly expected of puffins' "true" beaks ("Fratercula Brisson 1760", 2022). F. arctica is the smallest of the three species, though it is considered to be the most common. It is characterized by the deep blue triangle at the base of individuals' beaks ("Puffin FAQs", 2022). F. corniculata lacks the blue triangle of F. arctica and instead has a yellow beak with an orange tip at the end. Individuals are characterized by the sharp projections above their eyes. F. cirrhata is the largest of the puffin species and individuals have long, yellow feathers that extend from the crown during the mating season ("Puffin FAQs", 2022). ("Atlantic Puffin", 2022a; Burnham, et al., 2020; "Fratercula Brisson 1760", 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike


When Fratercula individuals reach about 5 years of age (3 in captivity), they mate monogamously in colonies. Males and females partake in a courting ritual of rubbing beaks, which occurs between lifelong couples and young couples alike. F. arctica males build their nests out of soft soil, as do F. cirrhata individuals. F. corniculata individuals build their nests in the rocky crevices of cliffs on their breeding island ("Fratercula Brisson 1760", 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022). ("Fratercula Brisson 1760", 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022)

Fratercula species' breeding season is from April to August. Females will lay a single egg during this time, and the egg will incubate for 40 days before the chick hatches. After the chick reaches about 45 days of age (or when it is capable of flight), it will venture out to the open sea where it will spend the next five years growing and developing (Cushman, 2022). (Cushman, 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022)

Before fertilization, Fratercula parents build a nest within their respective burrows, typically with a "toilet" corner to ensure that the chick will not damage its waterproof feathers after hatching. This is the only parental investment behavior pre-fertilization. In the early stages of incubation, both parents will often leave the egg on its own. Both parents will take turns incubating the egg, and as the egg gets closer to the average hatch date, they will begin to sit on it longer than normal.

After the egg hatches, both parents will help rear and protect the chick, as it will be helpless for its first 45 days of life. Shortly before the chick is ready to leave the nest, the parents will take off, returning the next year to repeat their breeding rituals (Cushman, 2022; "Fratercula Brisson 1760", 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022). (Cushman, 2022; "Fratercula Brisson 1760", 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


Fratercula individuals can live up to 20 years in the wild. Their lifespan is usually reduced by their predator Larus marinus, which hunts all ages of Fratercula individuals. These predators are capable of grabbing Fratercula mid-flight, on the ground, as well as stealing chicks and eggs from the nest. L. marinus also steal fish from Fratercula. They will either take it right from the puffin's beak or follow them home to attempt to rob them of their fish.

Another hazard to puffins' longevity is oil spills. After exposure, Fratercula will become sick and eventually perish from attempting to clean their wings of the oil, which damages their waterproof feathers (Cushman, 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022). (Cushman, 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022)


Fratercula are solitary on the open ocean, which is where they spend most of their life when not in the breeding season. They will migrate back to land in April, where they become very social. Puffins have a waddle resembling a penguin, but unlike penguins, are capable of flight. When on the open ocean, puffins will use their wings to propel themselves underwater and their feet as rudders while they move around to capture fish ("Puffins FAQs", 2022). As far as researchers know, there is no social hierarchy within Fratercula species ("Atlantic Puffin", 2022; Cushman, 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022). (Cushman, 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022; The Cornell Lab, 2022)

Communication and Perception

Although puffins are solitary at sea, they are quite social on land. Their calls resemble a muffled chainsaw and are typically emitted underground as the individual protects his/her burrow ("Puffins FAQs", 2022). Puffins also communicate through physical movement. When aggravated, individuals open their beaks, puff up their bodies, and open their wings. The wider the beak is, the angrier the individual typically is. They may also stomp to show their distaste. When aggravated by a conspecific, puffins will lock beaks and wrestle, using their feet and wings as weapons. To avoid such encounters, they will walk rapidly with their heads down as they move between territories to show others that they mean no trouble. When guarding their burrow, individuals will stand tall and stiff with their beaks next to their bodies and make slow foot movements ("Puffin FAQs", 2022). When landing after a flight, puffins communicate their peaceful intents by landing with one foot in front of the other, propping their wings open, and keeping their head low (Cushman, 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022). (Cushman, 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022; The Cornell Lab, 2022)

Food Habits

Fratercula adults eat a piscivore diet, sometimes resorting to crustaceans in the winter. Their diet usually includes Ammodytes marinus, Clupea harengus, Merluccius merluccius, and Mallotus villosus. Diet preferences vary from colony to colony, often dependent on what fish is available around the breeding islands. Puffins will stay close to their breeding islands, fishing in shallow waters no more than 10 miles from the shore. Parents feed chicks several times a day, either by directly passing off the fish to them or leaving it on the ground of the burrow for the chick to grab independently. To supplement their meals, puffins drink saltwater. Fratercula are unique in that they have backward-facing spines on the roof of their mouths and tongues that allow them to catch multiple fish per dive ("Atlantic Puffin", 2022; Cushman, 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022). (Cushman, 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022; The Cornell Lab, 2022)


Larus marinus and Stercorariidae spp. are the biggest predators of Fratercula. These predators have the tendency to snatch puffins midair, as well as steal puffins' chicks in order to feed their own young. Puffins utilize their beaks and sharp claws to protect themselves and their offspring. Kleptoparasites are also a common threat to puffins, as they will attempt to steal their fish.

Humans are also a predator to Fratercula species. Overfishing/hunting, oil spills, harmful tourism, and introductions of predators to breeding islands have all caused a decline in Fratercula populations. Such land predators include individuals of Vulpes, Canis, Felis, and several more ("Atlantic Puffin", 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022). ("Atlantic Puffin", 2022b; "Puffin FAQs", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022)

Ecosystem Roles

Puffins not only feed on small fish and invertebrates to maintain a balance of these populations, but also serve as a food source to predating gulls. Additionally, as puffins create burrows on breeding islands, they also move the soil around, allowing air and water into the environment ("Atlantic Puffin", 2022; Cushman, 2022; "Puffins FAQs", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022). ("Atlantic Puffin", 2022b; Cushman, 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Feather mites
  • Ticks
  • Fleas

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Fratercula individuals were once eaten by humans living on the coast. Currently, puffins contribute to ecotourism during their breeding seasons while they flock to their breeding islands/coasts. Puffins are also researched as ecosystem bioindicators, contributing to the maintenance of ocean waters ("Atlantic Puffin", 2022; "Fratercula Brisson 1760", 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Face Sheets", 2022). ("Atlantic Puffin", 2022a; "Atlantic Puffin", 2022b; "Fratercula Brisson 1760", 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022; The Cornell Lab, 2022)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Currently, Fratercula individuals do not negatively impact humans. (Cushman, 2022; "Puffin FAQs", 2022; "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets", 2022)

Conservation Status

Currently, F. cirrhata populations are stable; however, F. arctica and F. corniculata populations are listed as Vulnerable due to their population numbers decreasing. These decreases are the result of introduced predators, anthropogenic threats, and the global warming of ocean waters (Anker-Nilssen & Aarvak, 2022). (Anker-Nilssen and Aarvak, 2022)

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated


Ashley Perry (author), Colorado State University, Sydney Collins (editor), Colorado State University.


Arctic Ocean

the body of water between Europe, Asia, and North America which occurs mostly north of the Arctic circle.

Atlantic Ocean

the body of water between Africa, Europe, the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), and the western hemisphere. It is the second largest ocean in the world after the Pacific Ocean.

World Map


living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


union of egg and spermatozoan


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

World Map

Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).


an animal that mainly eats fish


the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

soil aeration

digs and breaks up soil so air and water can get in


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


uses sight to communicate


2022. "Atlantic Puffin" (On-line). Animal Spot. Accessed March 06, 2022 at

2022. "Atlantic Puffin" (On-line). National Geographic Kids. Accessed February 18, 2022 at

2022. "Fratercula Brisson 1760" (On-line). Accessed February 13, 2022 at

2022. "Puffin FAQs" (On-line). Audubon Puffin Project. Accessed February 13, 2022 at

2022. "Puffins/Wildlife Fact Sheets" (On-line). Accessed February 13, 2022 at

Anker-Nilssen, T., T. Aarvak. 2022. "Atlantic Puffin" (On-line). IUCN Red List. Accessed March 13, 2022 at

Brun, E. 1966. The breeding population of puffins Fratercula arctica (L.) in Norway.. Sterna, 7/1: 1-17. Accessed February 06, 2022 at

Burnham, K., J. Burnham, J. Johnson. 2020. Morphological measurements of Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica naumanni) in High-Arctic Greenland. Polar Research, 39: N/A. Accessed February 18, 2022 at

Cushman, A. 2022. "Atlantic Puffin" (On-line). Animal Fact Guide. Accessed February 13, 2022 at

Depot, K., L. Scopel, S. Kress, P. Shannon, A. Diamond, K. Elliott. 2020. Atlantic puffin diet reflects haddock and redfish abundance in the Gulf of Maine.. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 656: 75-87. Accessed February 06, 2022 at

Falk, K., J. Jensen, K. Kampp. 1992. Winter diet of Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) in the northeast Atlantic.. Colonial Waterbirds, 15/2: 230-235. Accessed February 06, 2022 at

Friars, K., A. Diamond. 2011. Predicting the Sex of Atlantic Puffins, Fratercula arctica, by Discriminant Analysis. Waterbirds: The International Journal of Waterbird Biology, 34/3: 304-311. Accessed February 06, 2022 at

Harris, M., R. Yule. 1977. The moult of the puffin Fratercula artica. Ibis, 119/4: 535-541. Accessed February 06, 2022 at

Kitaysky, A., J. Piatt. 2002. Tufted puffin: Fratercula cirrhata.. Birds of North America, 708: 1-31. Accessed February 06, 2022 at

Lowther, P., A. Diamond. 2002. Atlantic puffin: Fratercula arctica.. Birds of North America, 709: 1-23. Accessed February 06, 2022 at

Piatt, J., A. Kitaysky. 2002. Horned puffin: Fratercula corniculata.. Birds of North America, 603: 1-27. Accessed February 06, 2022 at

Real Wild, 2022. "The Secret Lives Of Puffins (Wildlife Documentary) | Puffin Patrol | Real Wild" (On-line). Youtube. Accessed February 18, 2022 at

The Cornell Lab, 2022. "Atlantic Puffin" (On-line). All About Birds. Accessed February 13, 2022 at

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022. "Alcidae" (On-line). Britannica. Accessed February 13, 2022 at

Vermeer, K. 1979. Nesting requirements, food and breeding distribution of rhinoceros auklets, Cerorhinca monocerata, and tufted puffins, Lunda cirrhata.. Ardea, 67/3-4: 101-110. Accessed February 06, 2022 at

Wehle, D. 1982. The breeding biology of the puffins: tufted puffin (Lunda cirrhata), horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata), common puffin (F. arctica), and rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata).. Dissertation Abstracts International B Sciences and Engineering, 42/12: 4711. Accessed February 06, 2022 at