Northern fulmar

The northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), fulmar,[2] or Arctic fulmar[4] is a highly abundant sea bird found primarily in subarctic regions of the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans. There has been one confirmed sighting in the Southern Hemisphere, with a single bird seen south of New Zealand.[5] Fulmars come in one of two color morphs: a light one, with white head and body and gray wings and tail, and a dark one which is uniformly gray. Though similar in appearance to gulls, fulmars are in fact members of the family Procellariidae, which include petrels and shearwaters.

Northern fulmar
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Procellariiformes
Family: Procellariidae
Genus: Fulmarus
F. glacialis
Binomial name
Fulmarus glacialis
(Linnaeus, 1761)[2]

Fulmarus glacialis glacialis
(Linnaeus, 1761)[3]
Fulmarus glacialis auduboni
Fulmarus glacialis rodgersii

Range of F. glacialis
     Breeding range     Wintering range

Procellaria glacialis Linnaeus, 1761

The northern fulmar and its sister species, the southern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialoides), are the extant members of the genus Fulmarus. The fulmars are in turn a member of the order Procellariiformes, and they all share certain identifying features. First, they have nasal passages that attach to the upper bill called naricorns; however, nostrils on albatrosses are on the sides of the bill, as opposed to the rest of the order, including fulmars, which have nostrils on top of the upper bill. The bills of Procellariiformes are also unique in that they are split into between seven and nine horny plates. One of these plates makes up the hooked portion of the upper bill, called the maxillary unguis. They produce a stomach oil made up of wax esters and triglycerides that is stored in the proventriculus. This can be sprayed out of their mouths as a defense against predators from a very early age, and as an energy rich food source for chicks and for the adults during their long flights.[6] It will mat the plumage of avian predators, and can lead to their death.[7] Finally, they also have a salt gland that is situated above the nasal passage that helps desalinate their bodies, due to the high amount of ocean water that they imbibe. This gland excretes a high saline solution from their nose.[7]

The northern fulmar was first described as Fulmarus glacialis by Carl Linnaeus, in 1761, based on a specimen from within the Arctic Circle, on Spitsbergen.[4] The Mallemuk Mountain in Northeastern Greenland is named after the northern fulmar (Danish: Mallemuk).


The northern fulmar consists of three sub-species:[8]


Fulmarus glacialis can be broken down to the Old Norse word full meaning "foul" and mar meaning "gull". "Foul-gull" is in reference to its stomach oil and also its superficial similarity to seagulls. Finally, glacialis is Latin for "glacial" because of its extreme northern range.[9]


The northern fulmar has a wingspan of 102 to 112 cm (40–44 in)[4] and is 46 cm (18 in) in length.[10][11][12] Body mass can range from 450 to 1,000 g (16 to 35 oz).[13] This species is gray and white with a pale yellow, thick, bill and bluish legs;[14] however there is both a light morph and dark, or 'blue' morph. In the Pacific Ocean there is an intermediate morph as well. All morphs have certain similarities, such as only the dark morph has more than dark edges on the underneath, and they all have pale inner primaries on the top of the wings. The Pacific morph has a darker tail than the Atlantic morph.[4][10][11][14][15][16][17]

Like other petrels, their walking ability is limited, but they are strong fliers, with a stiff wing action quite unlike the gulls. They look bull-necked compared to gulls, and have short stubby bills.[14] They are long-lived, with a lifespan of 31 years not uncommon.[18]

Population and trends[19]
LocationBreeding populationWinter populationBreeding trend
Faroe Islands600,000 pairs500,000–3,000,000 individualsstable
Greenland120,000–200,000 pairs10,000–100,000 individualsstable
France1,300–1,350 pairs100–500 individualsincreasing
Germany102 pairsincreasing
Iceland1,000,000–2,000,000 pairs1,000,000—5,000,000 individualsdecreasing
Ireland33,000 pairsincreasing
Denmark2 pairs200–300 individualsincreasing
Norway7,000–8,000 pairsincreasing
Svalbard500,000–1,000,000 pairsincreasing
Russia (Europe)1,000–2,500 pairs
United Kingdom506,000 pairs
Canada, Russia (Asia), & US2,600,000–4,200,000 pairs
Total (adult individuals)15,000,000–30,000,000increasing



This fulmar will feed on shrimp, fish, squid, plankton, jellyfish, and carrion, as well as refuse.[4][7][15][16] When eating fish, they will dive up to several feet deep to retrieve their prey.[12]


The northern fulmar starts breeding at between six and twelve years old. It is monogamous, and forms long term pair bonds. It returns to the same nest site year after year.[7] The breeding season starts in May;[4] however, the female has glands that store sperm to allow weeks to pass between copulation and the laying of the egg.[7] Their nest is a scrape on a grassy ledge or a saucer of vegetation on the ground, lined with softer material. The birds nest in large colonies[4][7][12][15][16] Recently, they have started nesting on rooftops and buildings.[4] Both sexes are involved in the nest building process.[7] A single white egg, 74 mm × 51 mm (2.9 in × 2.0 in),[7] is incubated for a period of 50 to 54 days, by both sexes. The altricial chick is brooded for 2 weeks[20] and fully fledges after 70 to 75 days. Again, both sexes are involved.[4][7] During this period, the parents are nocturnal, and will not even be active on well-lit nights.[7]

Social behaviour

The mating ritual of this fulmar consists of the female resting on a ledge and the male landing with his bill open and his head back. He commences to wave his head side to side and up and down while calling.[7]

They make grunting and chuckling sounds while eating and guttural calls during the breeding season.[15][16]


The northern fulmar is estimated to have between 15,000,000 and 30,000,000 mature individuals, that occupy an occurrence range of 28,400,000 km2 (11,000,000 sq mi) and their North American population is on the rise, hence it is listed with the IUCN as Least Concern.[19] The range of these species increased greatly last century due to the availability of fish offal from commercial fleets, but may contract because of less food from this source and climatic change.[4] The population increase has been especially notable in the British Isles.[15]

Anthropogenic Impact

Northern Fulmars stomach contents are a hallmark indicator of marine debris in marine environments because of their high abundance and wide distribution[21]. A study of 143 Northern Fulmars from the year 2008 to 2013 found 89.5% of them containing microplastics within their gastrointestinal tract. A mean score of 19.5 pieces of plastic and 0.461g per individual was calculated based upon the 143 individuals.[22]. This is considerably high compared to past studies on northern fulmars, meaning this can also lead to possible implication of increased plastic debris into marine ecosystems and shorelines, more data collection and research is needed to make such conclusions. Long term data of the Netherlands dating back to the 1980s, show an increase of user plastics (consumer plastic) and a decrease of industrial plastic in the stomach contents of fulmars.[21] The increased concern of plastic ingestion is through biomagnification because their diet consist of such invertebrates like plankton that have shown an increase of consumption of microplastics that are entering the ocean. By going deeper into the food web of marine life you can see fulmars can be indirectly effected through tropic transfer, biomagnification, and therefore can also effect their predators ingestion of plastic pollution. With the increase of freshwater pollution of plastic debris due to human impact we may see a rise in microplastic content of seabird GI tract.



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  • BirdLife International (2009a). "Northern Fulmar". BirdLife Species Factsheet. Retrieved 17 July 2009.
  • BirdLife International (2009b). The BirdLife checklist of the birds of the world, with conservation status and taxonomic sources.
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