What does the puffin tell us about the Atlantic?

by on July 15, 2017 at 1:39 am in Books, History, Science | Permalink

The widths of the Pacific continued unaltered for millions of years.  Temperatures scarcely dropped there in the Ice Ages.  Generation after generation of Pacific birds were able to evolve in an almost completely stable world.  Birds which somehow or other had arrived on remote islands branched into different species.  In the Atlantic, there was hardly time to do that between the Ice Ages…in the Atlantic endemics — species confined to particular places — only rarely evolved.

What you see when the puffins arrive in the spring is a product of this history.  The Atlantic, for the past 2.74 million years has been a place of coming and going, unsettled at the deepest of levels, a system always ready to flip from relatively beneficent to deeply unaccommodating.  Life does not have the time here to develop the mass of differentiated variety it has within the security of the Pacific.

…The result is that now in the North Atlantic there is relatively little local variation.  Species have evolved to cope with the variability and have wide ranges across the latitudes.  The Pacific is a mosaic of local land-based varieties; the Atlantic the exclusive realm of the ocean travellers, birds which have distance embedded in their way of being.

That is from the new and excellent The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers, by Adam Nicholson.  Whether it is covering the sex lives of guillemots or how gannets abuse their children, this book is first-rate.

The puffin chapter closes with this:

Next time you sit among the puffins on a summer evening, looking at their elegance and anxiety, that is what to hold in mind: not clowns but beauties, Ice Age survivors, scholar-gypsies of the Atlantic, their minds on an everlasting swing between island and sea, burrow and voyage, parent and child, the oscillating nomad masters of an unpacific ocean.

By the way, that is a UK Amazon link above, so they had to ship my copy across the Atlantic.

1 msgkings July 15, 2017 at 2:41 am

Oh man Tyler is trolling prior_test so hard right here. Respect.

2 Robert H July 15, 2017 at 6:36 am

You are a puffin.

3 Ray Lopez July 15, 2017 at 1:39 pm

Sounds like puffery from our fiend msgkings.

4 dearieme July 15, 2017 at 4:57 am

Nothing to do with the fact that the Pacific is littered with island groups, and the Atlantic less so?

Howsoever that might be, is what he says true of the South Atlantic too?

Anyway, apart from the puffins and gannets, did he also cover the commonest species, FLBBs?

5 KM32 July 15, 2017 at 8:58 am
6 dearieme July 15, 2017 at 10:25 am

Not a patch on the number in the Pacific though. And it’s daft to count continental shelf islands for this purpose, so you can delete all the islands of the British Isles for a start.

7 Anon July 15, 2017 at 8:25 am

….” they had to ship my copy across the Atlantic.”

It may not have been spacifically a Puffin book.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puffin_Books

8 Ray Lopez July 15, 2017 at 1:50 pm

Are you sure it wasn’t Penguin press?

Bonus trivia: on occasion birds of prey ‘erupt’ when the Lotka-Volterra equations get out of whack and there’s too many predators, called an ‘irruption’ in birding circles and causing birds of prey to migrate vast distances in search of new food (in theory the same thing should happen with bears or mountain lions, watch out if the overabundant deer population in Northern VA doesn’t eventually cause an irruption). Thus for the first time in recorded history, in 2012 a snowy owl traveled 2000 miles over the Pacific (owls are not natural long distance fliers) and landed in Hawaii at Honolulu Intl airport. It was promptly shot dead as a precaution against a bird strike hitting jets. In Logan Intl airport in Boston, MA when snowy owls appear they are routinely escorted away from the airport.

9 Ray Lopez July 15, 2017 at 1:40 pm

Other good birding books I have read.

Dunne, Pete. Birds of Prey: Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America

Strycker, Noah. The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human

Mark Obmascik. The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession (also made into a movie)

10 Slugger July 16, 2017 at 11:45 am

This hypothesis may answer the question I have had about the Salmonidae. There are six anadromous species in the Pacific but only two in the Atlantic.

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