Fulmars: The Birds That Vomit to Scare Predators

Fulmars: The Birds That Vomit to Scare Predators

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My name is Kayleigh Cecil and I am a recent graduate of Stevenson University. I majored in Medical Laboratory Science but would like to move into the science writing industry. I have always had a passion for science and would like to share my knowledge with others online. My main interests are biology, astronomy, and physics.

When you think of seabirds, you probably picture seagulls, pelicans, sandpipers, and albatrosses. There are actually many more types of seabirds, and one of the most unusual seabirds is the fulmar. Fulmars are a group of seabirds with tube-shaped nostrils. They look like seagulls but aren’t related to them. Instead, they belong to a larger group of seabirds called petrels. Like fulmars, petrels have tube-shaped nostrils. There are 2 species of fulmar, the northern fulmar and the southern fulmar. Fulmars got their names from an Old Norse word meaning “foul gull” due to the vomit that they eject.

Northern Fulmar

The northern fulmar, also known as the Arctic fulmar or simply fulmar, lives in the subarctic regions of the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. One time, a northern fulmar wandered as far south as New Zealand. There are 3 subspecies of northern fulmar: one that breeds in the high Arctic of the North Atlantic, one that breeds in the low Arctic of the North Atlantic, and one that breeds on the eastern Siberian coast and Alaska Peninsula

Northern fulmars are gray-and-white with a hooked pale-yellow beak and pale-blue legs and feet. They come in two color variations or morphs, a light morph and a dark morph. The light morph has a white head and body and a gray tail and wings. The dark morph or blue morph is all gray. They spend most of their life flying above the open ocean and are awkward on the ground. Unlike gulls, they fly with stiff wingbeats. They have relatively long lifespans for birds, being able to live for up to 31 years. 

These birds eat fish, shrimp, jellyfish, plankton, squid, and carcasses. They also consume a lot of plastic due to plastic pollution in the ocean. They tend to breed along subarctic coasts of North America and Eurasia. The breeding season starts in May. After mating, the females store the males’ sperm in special glands in their reproductive tracts. They nest in colonies on coastal ledges and hills, but will also nest on buildings and rooftops. When the chicks hatch and develop, the parents live a nocturnal lifestyle. 

The most interesting thing about northern fulmars is that they vomit in order to scare predators or feed their chicks. They’ll even feed other adults during long flights. The vomit mats the feathers of predatory birds, causing them to fall out of the sky or be unable to fly. Their vomit, or stomach oil, is acidic and contains wax esters and triglycerides. They store their stomach oil in a digestive organ called the proventriculus, which is an organ that only birds have. There is an analogous organ in insects and other invertebrates. Northern fulmars also have a salt gland above their nasal passages in order to get rid of excess saltwater that they ingest.  

Southern Fulmar

The southern fulmar, also known as the Antarctic fulmar or silver-gray fulmar, is the lesser known fulmar species. It lives in the Southern Ocean, South Atlantic Ocean, South Indian Ocean, and South Pacific Ocean. Most of its range covers Antarctic and subantarctic regions. It breeds on the Antarctic coast and Antarctic and subantarctic islands. Southern fulmars range as far north as Peru, New Zealand, southern Australia, and South Africa during the winter. There are even unconfirmed sightings of southern petrels from the western coast of North America.

Southern fulmars are pale-gray-and-white with a hooked pale-pink beak. Their beak has a black tip and dark-blue nasal tubes, and their legs and feet are pale-blue. They eat krill; shrimp; crustaceans; fish such as Antarctic silverfish; and squid such as glacial squid, armhook squid, and glass squid. Their breeding season begins in October, which is springtime in the Southern Hemisphere. They nest on coastal ledges, slopes, and crevices. 

Other Birds That Vomit

Fulmars have a relatively rare defense mechanism among birds. Few other birds vomit or spit stuff at predators. Turkey vultures, which live in the Americas, can project their vomit up to 10 feet (3 meters) in order to scare predators. European rollers, which are blue kingfisher-like birds that live in Eurasia and Africa, vomit a foul-smelling orange liquid at predators when they are chicks. The smell also warns the parents of the chicks about predators. 

This defense mechanism has even inspired speculative evolution worldbuilders to imagine a future world where there are birds that spit acid at predators. In The Future is Wild books and TV series, tropical rainforest covers Antarctica in the year 100,000,000 AD. The spitfire bird, a colorful yellow bird descended from petrels, lives in this rainforest and spits an acidic liquid at predators. This could eventually become reality in the far future, who knows? Fulmars and other petrels might one day evolve into birds that spit acid or other dangerous liquids. 

My name is Kayleigh Cecil and I am a recent graduate of Stevenson University. I majored in Medical Laboratory Science but would like to move into the science writing industry. I have always had a passion for science and would like to share my knowledge with others online. My main interests are biology, astronomy, and physics.