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Puffin with fish in its mouth

Crowd-sourced ‘Puffarazzi’ photos provide vital data for new RSPB puffin study

12/6/2024

Results are in for an innovative study into the feeding habits of one of the UK's best loved seabirds, the puffin. This ground-breaking citizen science project, supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, invited members of the public, the 'Puffarazzi', to submit photos of puffins carrying food for their chicks.


The photos were then analysed by a dedicated team of volunteers, dubbed “Puffineers” to determine the quantity and variety of prey that was caught and brought back to the nest for the developing puffin chicks.


The response to this unique project was astonishing. 602 members of the public submitted 1,402 photos from across the UK and most of these were of high enough quality to recognise prey species. In total, the team identified over 11,000 prey items in 27 colonies across the UK and Ireland, where previously data was only captured on a handful of sites.


The results suggest a possible link between prey availability and puffin population change. Puffins living in regions where puffin declines are the most severe were often found to be feeding their chicks with a larger number of tiny fish, whereas puffins in regions where populations are currently doing better were bringing in a smaller number of much larger fish. Sand eels are core to all of the colonies' diets, with sprats, herring, rockling and young cod also on the menu for puffins.


Dr Ellie Owen, lead author of the study, said: “This project is a testament to the huge contribution that scientists and the public can make when working together to give seabird conservation a boost.


Puffins are under threat and this project gives us evidence to show how we can support Puffin populations to recover.”


Dr Connie Tremlett, co-author of the study, said: “We were bowled over by the incredible support of the public and how many people took part. The Puffarazzi provided us with high-quality and robust data at a scale that would have been impossible without citizen science, which is vital for better understanding the threats faced by our puffins and how we can help them.”


Fritha West, one of the 'Puffineers' in the study, said: “As citizen scientists we are incredibly proud to have been involved in such an innovative project. As the impacts of the climate crisis become more severe, it's important we find efficient ways to monitor those changes, if we have any hope of doing anything about it.”


Atlantic puffins are endangered, with their food sources depleted through overfishing, climate change and other human activities. Understanding these impacts on UK puffins, which make up 10% of the global population, is vital to save them.

Kirsten Carter, the RSPB's Head of UK Marine Policy, added: “This is much-needed research, particularly in light of the worrying results revealed by the latest seabird census (Seabirds Count), which showed that 62% of seabird species in the UK are declining. Since the data was gathered, a lifeline has been thrown to puffins and other species that depend on sand eels. The UK and Scottish governments recently announced a full closure of sand eel fishing in English waters of the North Sea and all Scottish waters. This is hugely welcome news and needs to provide momentum for delivery of other much-needed actions to protect and save our seabirds.


“Regrettably, these closures are now being challenged by the EU. The UK governments must stand firm on keeping them in place, and the EU needs to reconsider its position and recognise the importance of protecting and restoring sand eel stocks to help turn around the fortunes of these globally important seabird populations.”


This study has demonstrated that publicly sourced photos are a viable and cost-effective method of collecting puffin chick diet data UK-wide. By replicating these efforts in future, scientists and conservationists can better understand the critical species in puffin diets across the UK's colonies and help protect their foraging areas from overfishing or development.


Long-term monitoring is essential to track changes in diet and the impacts on a puffin colony's success or failure. Such data provides a rare window into the health of the UK's waters and highlights potential threats to other seabirds and the wider marine environment.


The report is part of Project Puffin, supported by a £49,800 grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.


Puffin photographs illustrating this story are RSPB archive images.

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