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Giant petrels, snow petrels, fulmars and kin (petrels part VI)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Montage depicting representatives of all extant fulmarine genera except Thalassoica. Macronectes by Snowmanradio, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license; Fulmarus by T. Müller, Pagodroma and Daption both by Samuel Blanc, all licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Some time back I started a series on the remarkable tubenosed seabirds known as the petrels (see below for links). Previous articles introduced the group as a whole before discussing one of the four major petrel clades, the gadfly-petrels or pterodromines. The time to finish this series is now well overdue, so here we look at the next major clade: the fulmarines.  Look at the ‘consensus’ cladogram below to see how they fit with relation to the other petrel clades. Oh, it should be clear that this is a whistle-stop tour, or introduction, to these birds… there is so much more to say. [Images above by SnowmanradioT. Müller and © Samuel Blanc]

Fulmarini includes the fulmars (Fulmarus) but also the Antarctic petrel Thalassoica antarctica, Snow petrel Pagodroma nivea, the Cape or Pintado petrel Daption capensis and Macronectes, the giant petrels. These are the robust-billed petrels. They also generally have stockier heads and necks than members of the other petrel groups. Some of them – the fulmars in particular – are superficially gull-like, and as a consequence authors of the 1800s and before sometimes regarded members of this group as “the section of Petrels most closely allied to the Laridae, and forming the connecting link between the two families” (Coues 1866, p. 26).

Highly simplified 'consensus' cladogram for Procellariidae. Images (top to bottom) by Mark Jobling, Bryan Harry, T. Muller and Patrick Coin. Procellaria petrel and shearwater images in public domain; other images licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (fulmar) and Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license (gadfly-petrel).

The genetic evidence grouping these species together is reasonably good. Amino acid distances suggest that they diverged from one another quite a long time ago, with the Pintado petrel lineage splitting off in the Late Oligocene and most of the other lineages (including even the fulmar subspecies) diverging during the Miocene. In discussing these divergence date estimates, Penhallurick & Wink (2004) did say, however, that this amino acid distance contradicts nucleotide distance data and “we suspect that … an error may have confounded the data here” (p. 139). How were these divergence estimates calibrated? Penhallurick & Wink (2004) assumed a molecular clock where 2% of nucleotide divergence occurred every million years – see their paper for the full discussion. I like Penhallurick and Wink’s paper, but I’m duty-bound to remind you that it was heavily criticised by Rheindt & Austin (2005).

Southern fulmar in flight, photographed in the Drake Passage by Gvasquez, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

The most familiar fulmarines are of course the two fulmars: the Northern or Arctic fulmar F. glacialis and the Antarctic, Silver-grey or Southern fulmar F. glacialoides. Northern fulmars come in both light and dark morphs, with the light one being superficially gull-like in colouration while the dark one is smoky-grey and looks superficially like a shearwater. The very darkest forms are known as dark-dark or double-dark. To confuse things further, intermediates between both forms occur. And three Northern fulmar subspecies have been recognised.

Fulmars (the name apparently comes from the Norse for ‘foul gull’) are unusual among petrels in being highly flexible in choice of nest site: they can and will nest in the mouths of burrows, but they much prefer steep cliffs. They’re also known to nest on flat ground, on scree slopes, on ruins and even on the roofs of buildings (Fisher & Lockley 1989). The Northern fulmar is one of several petrel species that has increased hugely in numbers within recent decades. From a dispersal point originally located in southern Iceland, fulmars have spread south and east over the past two centuries. In the British Isles the species was unique, as a breeding bird, to St Kilda in 1870, yet by the 1970s it occurred around the coasts of virtually the whole of Britain and Ireland. Why fulmars exploded in numbers remains uncertain. An increased availability of waste whale meat and fish products, warming conditions in the north-east Atlantic, and even the spread of a recently evolved population, better able than other fulmars to cope with warmer climes and more flexible in breeding behaviour, have been suggested as contributory factors.

Snow petrels, Antarctic petrels, Cape petrels

Snow petrel; photo by Samuel Blanc, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Somewhat distantly related to fulmars within Fulmarini is the completely white Snow petrel Pagodroma nivea, among the most distinctive of all petrels [adjacent photo by © Samuel Blanc]. Penhallurick & Wink (2004) recovered it as the sister-taxon to all other fulmarines. There are supposed to be two Snow petrel subspecies (the taxonomy of these two is extremely confusing and I will avoid it here), with P. n. confusa being larger (on average) and with a stouter bill. The suggestion has been made that it’s distinct enough to warrant recognition as a distinct species (Harrison 1988). Specialising on ice-edge prey, the long tail and low aspect ratio wings of the Snow petrel make it a particularly manoeuvrable bird, and of course it needs to be as it dodges around at the edges of icebergs and at small leads in pack ice.

Strong sexual size dimorphism – a variation of as much as 44% in body mass – is present in this species; proportionally one of the most pronounced degrees of dimorphism in any tubenose. Snow petrels are sometimes predated upon by South Polar skuas Stercorarius maccormicki, with the skuas eating adult birds as well as eggs and chicks (Barbraud 1999). Skuas also prey on Southern fulmars and on the next two species we’re going to look at. Incidentally, big fulmars are sometimes able to fend off big skuas: Mellor (2009) reported a case in which a Northern fulmar, observed eating a dead puffin on the sea surface, successfully deterred a Great skua S. skua that tried to claim (or reclaim) the carcass.

Plate from Harper & Kinsky’s New Zealand Albatrosses and Petrels: an Identification Guide, showing (l to r) Cape petrel in dorsal and ventral view, Antarctic petrel in dorsal and ventral view, and Southern fulmar in dorsal view. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand Licence.

Another fulmarine of the Southern Oceans – the Antarctic petrel Thalassoica antarctica – is very different from the Snow petrel, having a short tail and short wings that have a high aspect ratio. [Plate above from New Zealand Electronic Text Centre.] These proportions assist in swift flight in strong wings, and also in pursuit diving (Spear & Ainley 1998). The Antarctic petrel also differs obviously from the Snow petrel in being strikingly marked, with dark brown upperparts and a white underside and broad white trailing edges on its wings. The tail is mostly white but with a black band at the tip. Antarctic petrels are famously gregarious breeders, with some of the larger colonies containing more than a million birds. They mostly breed on islands off the coast of Antarctica, but do use cliffs for breeding in some places.

Daption engaging in some deft wing manoeuvres. Photo by JJ Harrison, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

A third fulmarine of the Southern Oceans – the Cape or Pintado petrel Daption capense – is superficially like the Antarctic petrel but is very obviously mottled and shorter-billed [adjacent photo by JJ Harrison]. It’s said to somewhat recall a sea-going pigeon in form and flight style, and indeed ‘Cape pigeon’ is another common name sometimes used for it. It has a characteristic erect and buoyant posture when feeding from the water surface but will also patter at the surface in storm-petrel fashion and also make shallow dives, both from a sitting start when it’s on the water surface and from a short distance above the water. Massive flocks sometimes follow ships, and the population as a whole is put at over 2 million.

Pagodroma, Thalassoica and Daption all seem to be outside a fulmarine clade that includes Fulmarus and Macronectes (Kennedy & Page 2002, Penhallurick & Wink 2004). The prominent dark markings of Thalassoica and Daption, and the sometimes dark brown pigmentation of Fulmarus and Macronectes, might suggest that dark, even bold, colouring was ancestral for Fulmarini. But, then, Pagodroma is white, and Fulmarus and Macronectes are often pale or even wholly white…

The giant petrels

Northern giant petrel, photographed on South Georgia by Liam Quinn. This is somewhat lightened relative to the original. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Finally, we come to the Macronectes species (or subspecies): the giant petrels, sometimes called giant fulmars [adjacent image by Liam Quinn]. These are the most awesome fulmarines and among the most awesome of petrels. Their wingspans reach 2 m, meaning that they overlap in size with the smaller albatrosses. The massive, stout bill has a reddish tip in the Northern giant petrel M. halli while the Southern giant petrel M. giganteus exhibits a unique white morph. Within recent decades, the two have been considered separate species rather than subspecies but both are extremely similar genetically and some populations appear intermediate in characteristics. They hybridize where they occur together. In view of these factors, Penhallurick & Wink (2004) advocated reclassification as subspecies.

Giant petrels are especially interesting for lots of reasons. They are formidable predator and scavengers, feeding on krill, squid and fish but, more significantly, on other seabirds, including other petrels (prions, gadfly-petrels and fulmars are all among recorded prey species) and also on penguins. They’re unusual (perhaps unique) among petrels in feeding on land, and they use that powerful bill both to tear up carrion and grasp and dismember penguin and other seabird prey. Nelson (1980) says that a giant petrel “can tear a young or sickly albatross to pieces” (p. 62) and Cox (1978) described a case in which a giant petrel attacked, successfully drowned and then partially consumed a juvenile Black-browed albatross Thalassarche melanophrys at sea. While the precise numbers involved were hard to pin down, Hunter (1985) concluded that giant petrels were ecologically significant consumers of other seabirds.

All in all, the several fulmarine species are flexible, adaptable tubenosed seabirds that interact with other seabird species in interesting ways. The smaller ones scavenge, dive, patter on the sea-surface, sometimes form enormous squabbling flocks, and are sometimes predated upon by their larger cousins. The bigger ones – the giant petrels – are arch-predators and scavengers that routinely predate on other tubenoses and sometimes interact with other predatory seabirds, like great skuas. There are some great images online showing great skua – giant petrel interactions: look here and here. This image (below) is by Brocken Inaglory

Two great skua tell a giant petrel to go away; a fur seal carcass is at stake. Image by Brocken Inaglory, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

Next: shearwaters!

And for articles about other kinds of seabirds, see…

Refs – -

Barbraud, C. 1999. Subspecies-selective predation of snow petrels by skuas. Oikos 86, 275-282.

Coues, E. 1866. A critical review of the family Procellariidæ: Part III; embracing the Fulmareae. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 18, 25-33.

Cox, J. B. 1978. Albatross killed by giant-petrel. Emu 78, 94-95.

Fisher, J. & Lockley, R. M. 1989. Seabirds. Bloomsbury Books, London.

Harrison, P. 1988. Seabirds: an Identification Guide. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

Hunter, S. 1985. The role of giant petrels in the Southern Ocean ecosytem. In Siegfried, W. R., Condy, P. R. & Laws, R. M. (eds) Antarctic Nutrient Cycles and Food Webs. Springer-Verlag (Berlin), pp. 534-542.

Kennedy, M. & Page R. D. M. 2002. Seabird supertrees: combining partial estimates of procellariform phylogeny. Auk 119, 88-108.

Mellor, R. M. 2009. Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis successfully drives off a Great Skua Stercorarius skua. Seabird 22, 56.

Nelson, B. 1980. Seabird: Their Biology and Ecology. Hamlyn, London.

Penhallurick, J. & Wink, M. 2004. Analysis of the taxonomy and nomenclature of the Procellariiformes based on complete nucleotide sequences of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene. Emu 104, 125-147.

Rheindt, F. E. & Austin, J. J. 2005. Major analytical and conceptual shortcomings in a recent taxonomic revision of the Procellariiformes – a reply to Penhallurick and Wink (2004). Emu 105, 181-186.

Spear, L. B. & Ainley, D. G. 1998. Morphological differences relative to ecological segregation in petrels (family: Procellariidae) of the Southern Ocean and tropical Pacific. The Auk 115, 1017-1033.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Andreas Johansson 9:33 am 10/5/2012

    Thalassoica antarctica

    Missing ‘c’ in the specific name in the 2nd paragraph.

    [from Darren: thanks]

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  2. 2. Hai~Ren 10:46 am 10/5/2012

    I wonder if the giant petrels and skuas could be an example of convergent evolution; I don’t know anything about the skua or giant petrel fossil record, but is it possible that the skuas evolved in the Northern Hemisphere, while the giant petrels evolved to fill the large marine avian predator/scavenger niche in the Southern Hemisphere, in the absence of skuas, which were later arrivals?

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  3. 3. David Marjanović 11:50 am 10/5/2012

    I had no idea.

    I, too, wonder about the evolution of all those vaguely gull-like seabirds.

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  4. 4. Jenny Islander 12:52 pm 10/5/2012

    Wow, I finally got the site to let me in!

    Anyway, when I was a kid, I thought snow petrels were the most mysterious, wonderful birds ever, because nobody had found a nest yet. They flew inland, over the icefields . . . and disappeared. (cue spooky music)

    As for those big bruisers, I wonder whether, given the right conditions, they could become terrestrial predators. Imagine, perhaps, an After Man sort of thing in which one of the Subantarctic islands has grown to rival New Zealand, with its own terrestrial fauna. Maybe an island that was still infested by rabbits when humanity softly and silently vanished away, or all became starbabies, or whatever. The rabbits take advantage of the increased territory to grow in size and the big petrels follow in an arms race that ends with fleet cursorial rabbit-deer and terror-bird-like petrels chasing each other through the tussock grass . . .

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  5. 5. BrianL 1:16 pm 10/5/2012

    I’m not surprised Penhallurick & Wink had their reservations about their study using amino acids. Surely, the thought of modern subspecies having already diverged in the Miocene is absurd? It certainly is to me.

    That first picture of a giant petrel just screams ‘Skeksis’. It’s amazing how much they really look like fulmars on steroids.

    Do giant petrels ever interact with eagles, condors, vultures or other terrestrial birds of prey? If they are coastal and attracted to carrion, surely some interaction between them must occur? In fact, one would expect them to interact with terrestrial mammalian carnivores too.

    Now I’m imagining a Miocene whale carcass being squabbled over by a combination of giant petrels, skuas, condors, vultures and even a teratorn and phorusrhacid or two, for good measure…And why not a marabou too, since those are known to have occured in Miocene South America?

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  6. 6. naishd 3:10 pm 10/5/2012

    Thanks for the comments. On the possibility that giant petrels might interact with condors, vultures and so on, I confess that I’d forgotten the discussion of this that appeared on Tet Zoo in one of the previous petrel articles. Sorry. I’m not aware of cases where giant petrels have been seen ‘sharing’ – or competing with – raptors, nor can I find any pictures of this sort of thing going on. However, it’s certainly plausible – it’s well known that Andean condors and some caracaras forage and scavenge on beaches, so you’d certainly think that they encounter giant petrels occasionally (or even regularly). I’ve never visited any part of any giant petrel’s range. Please do say if you know any more about this sort thing!

    As for the evolutionary histories of giant petrels and great skuas, the idea that they have wholly separate, non-overlapping pasts does not appear supported by what little we know. Unfortunately, both groups have really poor – or really, really poor – fossil records. Great skuas are represented in the fossil record by a few specimens: one from the Early Pliocene of North Carolina (Olson 1985), one from the Late Pleistocene or Holocene of Spain (Tyrberg & Carrasquilla 1995), and one from the mid Holocene of Denmark (Lie 1989). Tyrberg & Carrasquilla (1995) wrote of this record that “[great skuas are] predominantly southern and the Great skua is presumably a recent coloniser in the North Atlantic” (p. 167). In other words, great skuas have greater antiquity in the Southern Hemisphere, but just what ‘antiquity’ means here isn’t clear. Did great skuas radiate prior to the Pleistocene, perhaps even as far back as the Late Miocene or Early Pliocene? It’s a shame Tommy Tyrberg isn’t round these parts any more – he used to be a regular commenter on Tet Zoo vers 1 and 2.

    As for giant petrels… it’s even worse. Tubenoses in general actually have a pretty poor fossil record, and I’m not aware of any giant petrel fossils. What we do know about their distribution and phylogeography suggests that they are a wholly Southern Hemisphere phenomenon, with molecular phylogenies indicating that they’ve been around since the Late Miocene or Pliocene. It MAY be, therefore, that great skuas and giant petrels have actually been co-evolving in relatively close contact for several million years. The dearth of data here is a bit annoying!


    Refs – -

    Lie, R. 1989. Animal remains from the post-glacial warm period in Norway. Fauna Norvegica, Series A 10, 45-56.

    Olson, S. L. 1985. The fossil record of birds. In Avian Biology, Volume III, pp. 79-238.

    Tyrberg, T. & Carrasquilla, F. H. 1995. First fossil record of the Great skua. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 115, 167-168.

    Link to this
  7. 7. vdinets 1:02 am 10/6/2012

    Are you using “great skua” as genus name? If not, the last photo must be of some southern sp., not of Great Skua proper.
    Anyway, people who have overwintered at South Georgia have told me that while climbing the island’s peaks in winter, they had seen snow petrels bathing in the snow at sunrise at very high elevations. Must be quite a sight…

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  8. 8. Dartian 3:56 am 10/6/2012

    I’m not aware of cases where giant petrels have been seen ‘sharing’ – or competing with – raptors, nor can I find any pictures of this sort of thing going on.

    It happens all the time in, e.g., the Falkland Islands. And yes, there are photos. See here and here, for example.

    The giant petrels would seem to be the dominant scavenger there. (Unsurprisingly, considering that they’re bigger than either turkey vultures or caracaras. Wonder how they would fare against Andean condors?)

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  9. 9. David Marjanović 5:51 am 10/6/2012

    Now I’m imagining a Miocene whale carcass being squabbled over by a combination of giant petrels, skuas, condors, vultures and even a teratorn and phorusrhacid or two, for good measure…And why not a marabou too, since those are known to have occured in Miocene South America?

    Also, bony-toothed birds.

    It’s a shame Tommy Tyrberg isn’t round these parts any more – he used to be a regular commenter on Tet Zoo vers 1 and 2.

    Perhaps he misunderstood the goodbye message at the end of ver 2? Initially at least, lots of people did.

    Link to this
  10. 10. naishd 7:11 am 10/6/2012

    On the term ‘great skua’ – I’ve actually been clear and consistent, it’s just that this is hard to spot (smiley). I use ‘great skua’ for the group of species traditionally included in Catharacta (but, these days, increasingly regarded as big, brown members of Stercorarius): that is, both the southern (South Polar or McCormick’s skua, Chilean skua, Antarctic skua) and northern species (Great skua or Bonxie). Meanwhile, I use Great skua specificially for S. skua, the Bonxie. So, that photo above shows a great skua, but not a Great skua. Yeah, I realised afterwards that I should have explained this somewhere.


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  11. 11. naishd 8:23 pm 10/6/2012

    While I’m here… there’s a huge amount of neat research that’s been done on giant petrels – I really could have written an awful lot more about them. In the interests of knowledge philanthropy, note that a lot of brilliant giant petrel literature is available online, for free. Check out…

    Carlos, C. J. & Voisin, J.-F. 2008. Identifying giant petrels, Macronectes giganteus and M. halli, in the field and in the hand. Seabird 21, 1-15.

    Forero, M. G., González-Solís, J., Hobson, K. A., Donázar, J. A., Bertellotti, M., Blanco, G. & Bortolotti, G. R. 2005. Stable isotopes reveal trophic segregation by sex and age in the southern giant petrel in two different food webs. Marine Ecology Progress Series 296, 107-113.

    González-Solís, J., Croxall, J. P. & Wood, A. G. 2000. Foraging partitioning between giant petrels Macronectes spp. and its relationship with breeding population changes at Bird Island, South Georgia. Marine Ecology Progress Series 204, 279-288.

    Quintana, F., Dell’Arciprete, O. P. & Copello, S. 2010. Foraging behavior and habitat use by the Southern Giant Petrel on the Patagonian Shelf. Marine Biology 157, 515-525.

    Techow, N. M. S. M., O’Ryan, C., Phillips, R. A., Gales, R., Marin, M., Patterson-Fraser, D., Quintana, F., Ritz, M. S., Thompson, D. R., Wanless, R. M., Weimerskirch, H. & Ryan, P. G. 2010. Speciation and phylogeography of giant petrels Macronectes. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 54, 472-487.

    Tirrell, P. C. & Murrish, D. E. 1979. Vascular anatomy of the brood patch of the giant petrel. Antarctic Journal of the United States 14, 171-172.


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  12. 12. Heteromeles 2:36 pm 10/8/2012

    I do wonder whether one might find a large variety of beach scavengers (such as giant petrels, condors, and teratorns) co-occurring on a whale carcass, or whether competitive exclusion might have kept some species away, while other scavengers appear when their competitors are eliminated.

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  13. 13. Dartian 2:59 am 10/9/2012

    To me, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the ecomorphology of Macronectes is how relatively agile it is on terra firma. Most other procellariiforms are very clumsy on the ground and only land there in order to nest. Giant petrels, in contrast, are able to do such things as wrestle with emperor penguins.

    On the term ‘great skua’ – I’ve actually been clear and consistent, it’s just that this is hard to spot

    Since that was brought up: Why do you choose to capitalise species names at all? Surely there are no ‘rules’ in the English language that require it? (Except, of course, when the species name includes references to geographical places or to people.)

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  14. 14. naishd 4:09 am 10/9/2012

    Terrestrial abilites of Macronectes: good point. It is at an extreme end of a cline with regard to terrestrial abilities, since Fulmarus appears to be better than other fulmarines in locomoting terrestrially, and fulmarines in general seem to be better terrestrial walkers than other petrels. A good study needs to be done on this.

    As for capitalisation and species names… as you note, there are no rules, and different places of publication have their own conventions. Some books, journals, websites and such capitalise all words in a species’s name (viz, Great White Shark); other capitalise none at all. I chose long ago to do what I regard as most sensible and most common: capitalise the first letter only (viz, Great white shark). When I’m referring to a group of taxa, I drop capitals entirely (viz, mackerel sharks). This convention has been used consistently across Tet Zoo, right from the start.


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  15. 15. Heteromeles 1:02 pm 10/9/2012

    Not that I’m criticizing your capitalization scheme, but I do need to bring up the botanical perspective: we don’t capitalize at all. As my teacher put it, “the birders had to start capitalizing species names when they named some birds tits. “Clutch size in Great Tits” has a much different meaning than “Clutch size in great tits.” This gets an even bigger laugh than the plant world’s claim to infamy, broomrapes (Orobanche sp).

    Oddly, the birders seem to be winning this one, forcing botanists to capitalize plant names that never were capitalized before. To me it’s too bad, because with the exception of Orobanche, botanists never had any trouble with sorting out double entendres. Talk about a creeping solution to a non-problem!

    Note: I’m referring to birders rather than ornithologists, because the people who are most militant about the capitalization seem to be environmental consultants who count birds for a living, rather than academic ornithologists.

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  16. 16. David Marjanović 6:17 pm 10/9/2012

    capitalise the first letter only (viz, Great white shark)

    You’ve explained this before, but it still looks like does not compute to me.

    But then, of Course, it’s all exotic from a german Perspective, where all Nouns get a capital Letter no Matter whether they’re Names.

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  17. 17. Christopher Taylor 7:00 pm 10/9/2012

    But then, of Course, it’s all exotic from a german Perspective,

    Part of it’s just the general laxity of English compared to German (for the record, I generally avoid capitalising vernacular names). A German editor to whom I’ve submitted manuscripts in the past used to get seemingly very irritated by apparent inconsistency in punctuation. ‘Well developed’ vs ‘well-developed’, for instance.

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  18. 18. naishd 8:14 pm 10/9/2012

    I’ve spent my whole life reading book on animals… capitalisation of the first letter is really, really common – so common I thought it was ‘industry standard’ until the early 1990s. Not that I care all that much (smiley).


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  19. 19. vdinets 10:14 pm 10/9/2012

    It looks like capitalizing is becoming more widespread in European journals, but not in American ones, where the standard is still to capitalize only names with geographic or personal connotations (Alpine ibex, Northern flicker, Lucy’s warbler, etc.)

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  20. 20. Pete Moulton 12:49 pm 10/18/2012

    Dartian @ 13, another reason for doing something to set the name of a particular species apart, by various capitalization schemes or in other ways, is to prevent ambiguity. Birds present the problem of being very popular among laypersons (aka birders), who have applied vernacular names to nearly all species. Sometimes these can cause confusion.

    Just by way of example, suppose you were to read the statement: “I observed a little gull among the herring gulls on the sandbar.” What does this mean, exactly? Does this statement refer specifically to Hydrocoleus minutus, a bird known to English-speakers on both sides of the Atlantic as the ‘little gull’, or does it instead refer more generically to any of several species which are smaller than the herring gull?

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  21. 21. Heteromeles 2:06 pm 10/30/2012

    Somewhat on topic: Hurricane Sandy is producing some interesting effects right now, and I strongly suggest that anyone interested in how seabirds speciate start tracking the reports coming from birders.

    I just heard on the radio that deep sea birds, like red phalaropes and pomeranian jaegers (and possibly a cahow?) are currently sheltering at Lake Cayuga in upstate New York. The guy reporting it said that he thought that some had gotten stuck in the eye of hurricane Sandy, and ditched at the lake when they could finally get free. Other migrants are similarly displaced (Brant’s geese sheltering inland, instead of on the coast, etc.).

    I didn’t think about the effect of late-season storms on moving sea birds, but that could be a major issue. It appears that birders are posting anomalous sightings in the wake of Sandy, so I’d suggest that anyone who’s interested in this should start hitting the birder’s websites and collecting reports, to see how far birds got displaced by this storm.

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