Close button
Join BirdBot Newsletter
Computer Vision Assisting in Wildlife Initiatives
Contact us:

Ancient Murrelet

November 15, 2023

The Ancient Murrelet is a unique and fascinating seabird species found primarily in the North Pacific region. Known for its distinct appearance and intriguing life history, the Ancient Murrelet has captured the interest of bird enthusiasts and researchers alike. In this blog, we will explore the key aspects of the Ancient Murrelet, including its size and shape, color pattern, behavior, habitat, interesting facts, ecosystem services, and the importance of conservation efforts for this species. Let's dive into the captivating world of the Ancient Murrelet.


Size and Shape

The Ancient Murrelet (Synthliboramphus antiquus) is a small seabird belonging to the family Alcidae, which also includes puffins, guillemots, and auklets. Adult birds measure approximately 9 to 10 inches (23 to 25 cm) in length, with a wingspan of about 18 inches (45 cm). They have a compact body shape with a short neck, giving them a streamlined appearance that is well-suited for their marine lifestyle.

The bill of the Ancient Murrelet is relatively small, sharply pointed, and dark in color. Their legs and webbed feet are set far back on their bodies, which is an adaptation for swimming and diving. However, this arrangement makes walking on land quite awkward for these seabirds.

The wings of the Ancient Murrelet are short and pointed, enabling them to move swiftly through the air and underwater. These birds are proficient divers, using their wings to propel themselves while searching for food in the depths of the ocean. Their sturdy build and powerful flight capabilities enable them to withstand the harsh conditions of their marine environment.


Color Pattern

The adult Ancient Murrelet has a striking color pattern that distinguishes it from other seabirds. The head is characterized by a black cap and a large white patch on the face, extending from the eye to the rear of the head. The white facial patch is more pronounced in breeding adults, while it may be less distinct in non-breeding birds.

The upperparts of the Ancient Murrelet are dark gray, while the underparts are primarily white. The contrast between the dark upperparts and the white underparts is especially noticeable during flight, as the white wing linings are exposed. This coloration provides the bird with effective camouflage, allowing it to blend in with the surrounding water and avoid detection by predators.

The legs and feet of the Ancient Murrelet are bluish-gray, and the bill is black. Juvenile birds have a similar color pattern to the adults, but with a more muted appearance. The facial patch in juveniles is less extensive and may be tinged with gray.



Ancient Murrelets are highly social birds that can often be seen in flocks, both on land and at sea. They are primarily nocturnal when visiting their nesting colonies, which helps them avoid predation by gulls and other daytime predators. During the day, they remain at sea, where they forage for food and rest on the water's surface.

These seabirds are skilled divers, using their wings to propel themselves underwater in search of prey. They primarily feed on small fish and invertebrates such as crustaceans and mollusks. Ancient Murrelets are known to dive to depths of up to 100 feet (30 meters) or more in search of food.

The breeding behavior of Ancient Murrelets is unique among seabirds. Instead of raising their young at the nesting colony, the parents lead

their chicks to the sea shortly after hatching. This remarkable behavior, known as "precocial development," allows the chicks to begin foraging for food almost immediately, reducing their vulnerability to predation at the nesting site. The chicks are able to swim and dive proficiently, with the parents guiding and protecting them during the first few weeks of life.



The Ancient Murrelet's habitat encompasses the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the North Pacific, extending from the Aleutian Islands and Alaska in the north to Baja California in the south. Their preferred breeding sites are located on remote, predator-free islands and coastal areas with dense vegetation for nesting. Nesting sites are typically found in areas with ample ground cover, such as tussock grass, heath, or ferns, which provide protection for the eggs and chicks.

During the non-breeding season, Ancient Murrelets disperse widely across their range, spending most of their time at sea. They are often found in shallow waters near the coast, although they can also be found in deeper waters farther from shore. Their distribution during the non-breeding season is influenced by factors such as food availability and oceanographic conditions.



  1. The Ancient Murrelet's name, Synthliboramphus antiquus, is derived from the Greek words "synthlibo" (meaning "to compress") and "ramphos" (meaning "bill"), which refers to the bird's compressed, narrow bill. The species name "antiquus" means "old" in Latin, which is thought to reference the bird's ancient-looking facial pattern.
  2. Unlike most other seabirds, Ancient Murrelets do not use their feet for propulsion when diving. Instead, they rely on their wings to "fly" underwater in search of prey.
  3. The Ancient Murrelet's precocial development strategy has some downsides. Due to their early departure from the nest, the chicks do not have the opportunity to learn the location of their birthplace. This may hinder their ability to return to their natal colony for breeding later in life.
  4. Ancient Murrelets have a low reproductive rate, with a pair typically producing only one or two eggs per breeding season. This makes the species particularly vulnerable to declines in population due to factors such as habitat loss, predation, and climate change.
  5. The Ancient Murrelet is considered a "Species of Special Concern" in some parts of its range, due to threats from habitat loss, oil spills, and predation by introduced species, such as rats and raccoons.


Ecosystem Services

Ancient Murrelets provide various ecosystem services, including nutrient cycling and food-web dynamics. As predators, they help regulate the populations of small fish and invertebrates in their marine environment. Additionally, their guano deposits contribute to the nutrient cycling process, enriching the soil and supporting plant growth in their nesting habitats.

The presence of Ancient Murrelets also benefits other species, as they can serve as an indicator of a healthy marine ecosystem. For example, their distribution and abundance can provide valuable information about the status of fish stocks, which in turn can inform fisheries management decisions.



The Ancient Murrelet is a fascinating seabird with a unique life history and intriguing behaviors. Its distinctive appearance, precocial development, and adaptations to a marine lifestyle make it a species of great interest to researchers and bird enthusiasts alike. Efforts to protect and conserve the habitats of the Ancient Murrelet are crucial for ensuring the long-term survival of this captivating bird species. By better understanding and appreciating the Ancient Murrelet, we can work together to support conservation initiatives that will help maintain the balance and health of the ecosystems in which these birds thrive.