The small group of the Puffins contains the most colourful species among the Auks. Their bodies are like other auks, predominantly black and white and some grey and brown. But it is the brightly coloured bill that makes this group so special. There are three species of true puffins belonging to the genus Fratercula. All species of this genus have high and vertically flattened bills. The other genus Cerorhinca counts only one species, the peculiar Rhinoceros Auklet. This one – in spite of its name – is also a puffin.

Most Puffins have a Pacific distribution, only the Atlantic Puffin – as the name says – is from the Atlantic. It is also the only one with three subspecies. The largest living in the north of species’ distribution, becoming gradually smaller to the South.

Unlike the other birds of the auk family puffins have distinct summer and winter bills. After the breeding season the bill becomes much smaller, by molting the ramphotecal coating, and looses much of the bright coloring. The Rhinoceros Auklet looses its ‘horn’ and gets a dull orange bill of about the size of the Thick-billed Murre’s bill. The Pacific Tufted Puffin has an orange bill with a greenish base. The other Pacific species: the Horned Puffin looks very much like its Atlantic counterpart, but its bill is yellow with an orange tip. The Atlantic Puffin has the most colorful bill, orange and yellow with bluish grey at the base.

Oil spills have caused great mortality among many puffin species and also human fishing activities cause pressure on the puffin’s food resources.

Note: After conservation Puffin bills loose their bright colors and look rather dull.

Genus Cerorhinca

One species:

  • Rhinoceros Auklet Cerorhinca monocerata, north-eastern Pacific from the Aleutians down to California.

Rhinoceros Auklet
Cerorhinca monocerata Long Beach, Vancouver Island. Canada
Culmen: 30.7 mm; total: 87.5 mm, unsexed adult

Genus Fratercula

Three species that are obviously related. The monotypic Horned and Tufted Puffin are birds of the North Pacific. In the Atlantic the Atlantic Puffin is the only representative of this tribe. From an evolutionary point of view the rather similar Horned and Atlantic Puffins are 'recent' differentiations of a presumed common Pacific ancestor.

  • Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica. Three subspecies: 
    • F. a. naumanni. High Arctic: NW Greenland, Jan Mayen, Novaya Zemlya and Spitzbergen.
    • F. a. arctica, Labrador, to Maine, southern Greenland. Iceland, northern Norway.
    • F. a. grabae. Southern Norway, British Isles, northern France.
  • Tufted Puffin Fratercula cirrhata, northern Pacific, from the Kuriles to the Californian coast.
  • Horned Puffin Fratercula corniculata, northern Pacific, from the Kuriles, Russian coast to British Columbia.

More about Atlantic Puffin: subspecies and ageing

Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica Iceland, summer
Culmen: 45.3 mm; total: 81.6 mm, unsexed adult 

Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica grabae 1) Belgium, winter (Tricolor oil spill, 2003)
Culmen: 44.7 mm; total: 81.9 mm, adult male.

Tufted Puffin
Fratercula cirrhata Alaska, 2005
Culmen:55.7mm; total: 93.7 mm, unsexed adult 2)

1).  Courtesy of Kees Camphuysen, NIOZ (Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research)
2).  Courtesy of Tasha, Alaska