To each its own

Ambika Kamath | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on March 25, 2016
Ready to fly: Each puffin follows its own idiosyncratic route year after year, paying seemingly little attention to what the others are doing

Ready to fly: Each puffin follows its own idiosyncratic route year after year, paying seemingly little attention to what the others are doing   -  Shutterstock

Ambika Kamath

Ambika Kamath   -  Business Line

The coordinated life of the puffin in the breeding season is in stark contrast to what it does during the rest of the year

When I sit down each month to learn about a new creature, I expect that the creature’s life will soon begin to make sense to me. The process of understanding the Atlantic puffin, however, has been the reverse. The more I discover, the more enigmatic the puffin becomes.

I would never have written about puffins had it not been for a suggestion from Jonathan Woodward, who works at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in the office next door to mine. Though Woodward knew about puffins as a child, his current enthusiasm for them grew from an unusual source. “There’s this breakfast cereal called Puffins. They have puffin facts on the back of the box, so I read the facts on the back of box and I looked them up online… I was just really taken by them.”

Simply looking up facts is not often the best way to become excited about an organism. But puffins are an exception. Facts about how puffins go about their lives have been enough to persuade me that, if I could choose such a thing, they’re the organism I’d most like to be.

I’d previously thought that puffins were too famous, too charismatic for me, a self-avowed champion of the underappreciated, to pay much attention to. And it’s undeniable that puffins’ appearance contributes to their easy popularity. “The black and white is very tasteful, very stylish,” Woodward described. But he soon convinced me that even their looks are not straightforwardly charming: “the shape of the feathers around the eye… makes them look sad and happy at the same time.”

Delving into their biology, I found that puffins continued to stubbornly defy all my expectations. Take, for example, their approach to nest hygiene. Pairs of puffins each lay a single egg inside of a burrow. They dig these burrows themselves, also constructing a small side tunnel that the chick uses as a toilet. “This behaviour ensures that the chick’s long down does not get fouled,” say Mike Harris and Sarah Wanless in The Puffin, a delightful account of these birds’ biology.

But unlike the chicks’ contained defecation, adult puffins are positively extravagant with their guano. Harris and Wanless describe it thus: “an adult puffin leaves the burrow to defecate, takes a few steps, turns around, raises its tail and ejects a white trail. In time, this behaviour results in series of very distinctive white lines radiating out from the entrance, a sure sign that a burrow is occupied.”

You may expect any self-respecting biologist to be able to trot out a neat evolutionary hypothesis for why puffins adorn the entrance of their nest burrows with a fecal rangoli. But personally, I’m stumped. And this isn’t the only aspect of the puffin’s life about which we have more questions than answers. Consider the low-pitched vocalisations that puffins emit from within their burrows. No one is quite sure what these ‘groans’ convey. And it gets even more bizarre when, every now and then, a whole colony of puffins synchronises their calls. On such ‘groaning days’, it is, in the words of puffin biologist Kenny Taylor, “as if the earth itself were speaking in the tongues of a thousand puffins.”

Biologists’ best guess for why puffins groan in chorus is that low-frequency vibrations transmitted through the soil help them locate their neighbours’ burrows, preventing collisions and collapses on the crowded islands where thousands of puffins nest together. Their breeding season is also marked by other impressive feats of coordination. The one I’d most like to see is called ‘wheeling’, where large groups of puffins fly in a circle above both land and sea. Each puffin’s position in the wheel is coordinated with its neighbours’ positions, allowing all of the puffins who nest close together to return to their burrows simultaneously after going fishing in different parts of the sea. Again, biologists can guess why this might be useful — landing together could confuse the sea gulls waiting close by to steal the puffins’ hard-earned fish — but we don’t know for sure.

All this coordination among puffins in the breeding season lies in stark contrast to what they do during the rest of the year. As Woodward said, “They’re out at sea alone by themselves, so completely solitary.” Until recently, puffins have been impossible to track as they fly across vast ocean expanses in the non-breeding season, never coming near land. But with recent technological advances, scientists can measure where they go. What they’ve found so far is weird — each puffin follows its own idiosyncratic route year after year, paying seemingly little attention to what the others are doing. We have no idea how a puffin decides where to go, and that’s just the start of the questions. “Where do they sleep? Do they take naps? What are they doing out there that whole time?” Woodward mused, “They might as well be alien creatures.”

Though Woodward works in a natural history museum, he is less a scientist and more a poet. He’s had a chance, therefore, to observe us biologists from the outside, as we go about “taking a large messy system like the world and slicing it into thinner and thinner slices until you can understand, or tell yourself that you can understand, what’s going on.” But every now and then, something like a puffin comes into view, reminding us how strange of a mystery this world still remains.

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Published on March 25, 2016
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