This elegant seabird, roaming the southern seas, has a somewhat gull-like appearance with pale grey upperparts, with white flashes and dark edges on the wings, and white underparts. The bill is pink with a black tip and bluish nostrils and the conspicuous eyes are dark coloured (2). The bill of the southern fulmar is large and broad, with large nasal tubes on top of their bill that cover the nostrils, instead of the more common fused nostrils of other birds (5)(6). In the air, this bird alternates between flapping, gliding and soaring over waves, but on land it is less impressive and moves in an ungainly shuffle (5). Although similar in appearance to its more northerly namesake, the northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), northern fulmars are only found in the Northern hemisphere and the Southern Fulmars in the Southern hemisphere, with no overlap in area where both species occur (7).
The southern fulmar is an extremely sociable bird and frequently feeds and rests in large flocks. This is most evident when it is feeding, when huge groups of birds, often mixed with other seabirds, such as Cape petrels (Daption capense), collect around concentrations of fish. Usually its fish, squid or krill prey is skimmed from the water’s surface, but occasionally the southern fulmar makes shallow dives to catch food (3).
Although probably highly nomadic throughout much of the year, the southern fulmar returns to its breeding grounds from October. Pairs tend to stay together each season, and upon arrival at the nesting site, which is reused from previous years, they engage in unusual courtship displays. The male and female perch side-by-side and call loudly, while waving their heads and preening together (4). A simple nest, which is no more than a pebble-lined scrape on a ledge or crevice with some shelter from the wind, is subsequently constructed and a single large, white egg is laid, usually in December. Both parents incubate the egg for around 46 to 47 days, taking turns in stints of one to nine days. Like other Procellariiformes, southern fulmars brood and guard their chicks after hatching for 14 to 20 days. The young birds fledge from the nest in March, around 50 to 52 days after hatching (9)(10).
The southern fulmar breeds along the coast of Antarctica and some outlying islands, including the South Orkney, South Sandwich and South Shetland Islands, Bouvet Island and Baird Island (8). Like other seabirds, southern fulmars are highly nomadic, and outside of the breeding season, this bird moves northwards and away from the pack ice. Some individuals may be found as far north as the coasts of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South America, up to central Peru and southern Brazil (4).
Because southern fulmars have difficulty taking off, they preferentially build their nests on ledges and in cavities on cliffs and steep rocky slopes. During the breeding season they forage over the cold Antarctic waters (4). But it is largely unknown where they stay outside the breeding season, although they probably disperse widely, with some animals following the productive cold-water currents to more northern latitudes (7).
The southern fulmar is one of the most abundant birds in the Antarctic region with a population possibly numbering as high as several million birds (8). As this bird inhabits inhospitable, remote areas, it has largely avoided persecution and other human-induced threats to its survival. It also regularly feeds upon fisheries discards and whale and seal carrion, greatly increasing the amount of food available to the species (7). Climate change is not likely to threaten the global southern fulmar population in the near future. Some local populations, however, might be affected through the effects of a changing climate. For example, Antarctic birds appear to be breeding later in response to a reduction in the extent of sea ice cover, causing declines in prey species, or the increasing length of the sea ice season delaying access to breeding grounds (11).
In the absence of any significant threats to its survival, the southern fulmar has not been the target of any specific conservation measures. However, Bouvet Island is managed as a nature reserve, protecting perhaps as many as 20,000 breeding pairs, possibly many more (8), while work is being undertaken to conserve natural habitats within the species’ range (12).
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Marchant, S. and Higgins P.J. (1990) Handbook of Australian, New Zealand, and Antarctic birds. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Warham, J. (1990). The Petrels, Their Ecology and Breeding Systems. Academic Press, London.
Cruewels, J. (2010) Pers. comm.
Creuwels, J.C.S, Poncet, S, Hodum, P. and van Franeker J.A. (2007) Distribution and abundance of the Southern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialoides. Polar Biology, 30:1083-1097.
Hodum P.J. (2002) Breeding biology of high-latitude Antarctic fulmarine petrels. Journal of Zoology London, 256: 139-149.
Creuwels J.C.S, van Franeker J.A., Beinssen, A., Doust, S.J., Harding, B. and Hentschel, O. (2008) Breeding strategies of Antarctic Petrels Thalassoica antarctica and Southern Fulmars Fulmarus glacialoides in the high Antarctic and implications for reproductive success. Ibis, 150: 160-171.
Barbraud, C. and Weimerskirch, H. (2006) Antarctic birds breed later in response to climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 103: 6248-6215.
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