Map of Channel Islands of California and San Miguel Island and San Nicolas Islands, showing fossil bird localities

The Puffin family of birds is small. It always has been. But there were more along time ago. Fossils including eggshells, bones of immature birds, and articulated skeletons suggest that nesting colonies of an older puffin once occurred on San Miguel and San Nicolas islands off the coasts of California.

Map of Channel Islands of California and San Miguel Island and San Nicolas Islands, showing fossil bird localities

One such puffin, the now extinct Dow’s Puffin (Fratercula dowi), once live in the Channel Islands of California. In October 1986 George L. Kennedy and D.R. Muhs discovered over 5,000 bones and eggs identified to be a new species of puffins, the Dow’s Puffin, on the Island of San Miguel. Once discovered this new species was named after Ronald J. Dow who provided assistance and logistical support to the scientists during their trips to San Nicolas Island.

The smallest bone specimens of the Dow’s Puffin found was dated at aproximately 11,890 +/- 95 years BP (before present — present being set at 1950) having lived during the Early Holocene period. Radiocarbon dating places most of the bones somewhere between less than 38,000 BP and 25,160 +/- 380 years BP. This means they were alive for approximately between 13,270 and 26,110 years.  This is not very long in comparison to other species, even birds. However, other previously unidentified bones found on Santa Rosa Island in the mid to late 1960’s are now thought to belong to the Dow’s Puffin. The interesting part is these bones date back as early as 100,000 years BP and are “at the large end of its size range.”

This would indicate the bird evolved from bigger to smaller until its eventual evolutionary demise. This would also mean the Dow’s Puffin lived a long, long evolutionary life.

Fossils of Dow's Puffin

Fossils of Dow's Puffin

The Dow’s Puffin was relative in size to the Rhinoceros Auklet and the

Measurements of bills and mandibles of Fratercula dowi compared to other Puffins

Measurements of bills and mandibles of Fratercula dowi compared to other Puffins

Horned Puffin but its skull was more like the Rhinoceros Auklet and the Tufted Puffin. It is the latter two which are now considered its closest relatives. It is not the size or shape of the bird fossils that distinguish the Dow’s Puffin from other Puffins but rather the “degree of dorsoventral expansion of the bill and mandible.” (See figure 4 — B and C are from the Dow’s Puffin, A is the Rhino Auklet, D is the Tufted Puffin and E is Horned Puffin. The size difference is notable as you can see.

One very well preserved egg thought to be of the egg of a Dow’s Puffin is approximately 2.6 inches (66mm) long and 1.7 inches (43.2mm) around the largest part. It is approximately the size of eggs of the Rhino Auklet and the Horned Puffin but smaller than that of the Tufted Puffin.

While one would not expect puffins to live or breed in Southern California today because it is too warm for them—60,000 to 30,000 years ago the climate was more like the climate found today off the Washington State and Oregon coasts. This is exactly the kind of climate puffins prefer.

All information from this article was extrapolated or taken directly from the following scientific journal publication: A NEW SPECIES OF EXTINCT LATE PLEISTOCENE PUFFIN (AVES: ALCIDAE) FROM THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA CHANNEL ISLANDS by Daniel A. Guthrie, Howell W. Thomas and George L. Kennedy.