One of few birds that breed exclusively in the Antarctic, this bird is strongly associated with snow throughout its life, a feature alluded to by its beautiful, all-white, cryptic plumage and name, nivea, which means ‘snowy’ in Latin (2)(3)(4). An unmistakable species, the snow petrel has a very small, black bill, dark, conspicuous eyes and lead-grey feet (5). The adults are much alike, although the female is typically slightly smaller, but the juvenile is distinguished by extensive black barring on its upperparts (2)(5). This medium-sized petrel has long wings and a tail that is nearly square when folded, but appears fan-shaped in flight (5). The snow petrel is an extremely agile seabird that flies low over the water, using more rapid wingbeats and less gliding compared to other petrels, but may fly higher over land to avoid detection by predators (3)(4)(5)(6). Another characteristic feature of the snow petrel is the great variability in size amongst individuals, with the largest birds around one and a half times bigger than the smallest (3).
There is some debate over the taxonomy of the snow petrel. Limited evidence suggests that populations breeding north of the pack ice may actually be a separate species. But in the absence of further evidence, this debate is currently unresolved (7).
While solitary for much of the year, from late October to early November the snow petrel returns to breeding colonies to mate (3)(6). Upon returning to the colony, the male snow petrel performs an unusual aerial display to attract its mate and the pair will subsequently descend to the nest and touch bills, reinforcing the pair bond (3)(9). The nest is no more than a simple pebble-lined scrape in a sheltered hollow or rocky crevice, with overhanging cover offering protection from the extreme elements (2)(4). Competition for nesting sites is fierce and the birds are strongly territorial and aggressively repel intruders by grasping bills, screeching, flapping wings and spitting their waxy, yellowish stomach oil (3)(4). A single large, white egg is laid and incubated for 41 to 49 days. After hatching the chicks are intensively cared for by the parents for around eight days, as at this time they are particularly vulnerable to attacks from predators, such as skuas. The young birds fledge from the nest after some 41 to 45 days, usually from late February to mid-May, and may live to reach 20 years of age (2)(4).
The snow petrel feeds mainly on fish, krill, squid and carrion, such as seal, whale and bird carcasses. While foraging at sea, it typically seizes prey in its bill near the water’s surface, although it may also dive for its food (2).
Along with the South polar skua (Catharacta maccormicki), the snow petrel breeds further south than any other bird and has even been seen at the South Pole (4). It breeds primarily on the Antarctic continent and peri-Antarctic islands, as well as some islands lying north of the pack ice, including South Georgia, Bouvetøya, the South Sandwich Islands and South Orkney Islands, where it nests in colonies on cliffs (3)(6). It is strongly associated with the cold Antarctic waters, rarely straying far from pack ice, and regularly rests on icebergs while at sea (3)(5)(8).
Restricted to Antarctic waters, the snow petrel is most commonly found in areas with pack ice and icebergs. It breeds on cliffs and rock faces up to 440 kilometres inland and 2,400 metres above sea level (2)(3).
The snow petrel is one of the most abundant birds in the Antarctic region with a population possibly numbering as high as several million birds (2)(3)(10). As this bird inhabits inhospitable, remote areas, it has avoided human persecution and lacking any significant threats to its survival, its population may even be increasing (2). Climate change could, however, threaten this species in the future as Antarctic birds appear to be breeding later in response to a reduction in the extent of sea ice cover, causing decreases in prey species in some areas, 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 snow petrel has not been the target of any specific conservation measures. However, it has benefited from some conservation projects undertaken within its range, such as efforts to remove invasive predators from South Georgia and conserve natural habitats on the South Sandwich Islands (12)(13).
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