Say cheese: Public photography contributes to Puffin population study

Equipped with long lenses, the ‘Puffarazzi’ have submitted photos to Project Puffin in their thousands! The snapshots have provided invaluable data for a new study, highlighting a possible link between prey availability and populations.

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Group of 5 puffins stood on the grassy edge of a cliff, with the ocean in the background.
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Watch the birdie

Puffins: charismatic, colourful and obliging posers. It’s no wonder they’re a fan favourite. Every summer, many of you visit breeding colonies on coastal cliffs across the UK, hoping to take the perfect shot of this star species. We’ve nicknamed you the ‘Puffarazzi’! 
In 2017 our conservation science team asked for any snapshots you had of Puffins carrying fish in their bills. We recruited a team of volunteers to count the pictured prey species. Dubbed the ‘Puffineers,’ they have identified over 11,000 prey items in 27 UK colonies — just from your submitted photos!  

 This study, made possible with your contributions, has identified an important possible link between prey availability and population changes.  

Fritha West, one of the ‘Puffineers’ in the study, said:

“As citizen scientists we are incredibly proud to have been involved in such an innovative project. As the impacts of the climate crisis become more severe, it's important we find efficient ways to monitor those changes, if we have any hope of doing anything about it. And looking at lots of pictures of cute puffins didn't hurt either!” 

A fish dinner

From the 1,400 photos you submitted, the ‘Puffineers’ identified the differences in prey in different regions. The team found that the size, the type (the species and age) and the number of prey brought back by Puffins for their chicks varied between colonies in different regions.  

Sandeels were a dominant part of the diet across the colonies studied, but there were other, less well-studied species too, such as herring, rockling and Sprat. In the colonies facing declines, the Puffins were recorded as bringing smaller fish such as young sandeels and small rockling to feed to their chicks. Meanwhile, Puffins breeding in colonies which are currently thought to be increasing tended to bring back larger fish such as older sandeels and Sprats.   

Candid conservation

Dr Ellie Owen of the National Trust of Scotland (formerly of the RSPB), who pioneered the project, was awarded a prestigious Marsh Award from the BTO for an innovative use of citizen science. With 96% of submitted images meeting the criteria, the study has demonstrated that publicly sourced photos are viable and cost-effective for collecting Puffin chick diet data UK-wide. 

Dr Ellie Owen says:

“This project is a testament to the huge contribution that scientists and the public can make when working together to give seabird conservation a boost. Puffins are under threat and this project gives us evidence to show how we can support puffin populations to recover.”

With your help, we can replicate these efforts in future. The invaluable data that the ‘Puffarazzi’ have provided means scientists and conservationists can better understand the critical species in Puffin diets across the UK’s colonies and help protect their foraging areas from overfishing or development.  

Seabird success

Puffins are at risk of extinction from the UK as a breeding species. It’s predicted that their populations could plummet by 90% by 2050, with increasing sea temperatures and overfishing impacting the availability of their prey. The Revive our Seas report, published by the RSPB in 2021, clearly demonstrated the link between the decline in seabirds and the availability of sandeels.  

This year, we welcomed the news of a banning on industrial sandeel fishing in English North Sea and all Scottish waters. The passing of the ban proved that science-led campaigning can turn the tides to help to safeguard our seabirds. Read the story of the 20-year campaign here. The closure of sandeel fisheries: our legacy of campaigning (  
Our campaigning and conservation work is always grounded in science. The ‘Puffarazzi’ project has demonstrated the wealth of data citizen science is able to provide. Together, with your contributions, we can continue to unlock wins for our struggling species. For more info on how species photography supported this vital piece of research, feel free to check out our blog post.

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