Southern Giant-petrel (Macronectes giganteus)


'The Giant Fulmar, more generally known by a variety of opprobrious or derisive names, is scarcely more popular as a bird than a shark is as a fish. Its appearance and habits are alike unprepossessing, and in the tender yet prejudiced breasts of seafaring men it arouses no trace of the kindly sentiments of which albatrosses and Mother Carey's chickens are often the beneficiaries.'

Robert Cushman Murphy in Oceanic Birds of South America, 1936.

Currently a monotypic species, recently split from Northern Giant Petrel. Also known as Antarctic Giant-Petrel, Giant Fulmar, Nellie, Glutton, Stink-pot, Stinker, and 'gallinazo marino' (sea vulture).

Roughly the size of one of the smaller albatrosses (mollymawks) but with shorter narrower wings and a bulkier body. Flight is laboured, needing 4 or 5 flaps between glides but does better in stiff winds. Needs a good run up to take flight. On the land, slightly more agile than albatrosses. When disturbed on land, most likely to scuttle to nearest water. Both scavenger and hunter. Eats penguin nestlings, introduced mammals (good!), whale and seal carcasses, seal placentas etc. Murphy (1936) cites a number of attacks on drowing seafarers.

Portrait shot of a white morph individual. Notice the green tip to the bill, indicative of this species although unecessary because the white morph is unknown in Northern Giant Petrel. The dark iris probably indicates immaturity, typically becoming paler with age. Photo taken in South Georgia or Antarctica, January 1999. Photo copyright of Ron Saldino©, 1999.


Two morphs: white and dark. White morph is unique to Southern Giant Petrel, while dark morph closely resembles Northern Giant Petrel. White morphs (as much as 10% in some populations) are recognizable from the chick stage onwards. Juveniles resemble adults, typically with black spots and patches randomly scattered through plumage. The bare parts are as dark morph. Fully white individuals (leucisitic?) occur (see photo 39.1 in Enticott and Tipling) and are thought to be the result of crossings between two white morph individuals.

South Georgia or Antarctica, January 1999. Photo copyright of Ron Saldino©, 1999.

Where and When

Total population estimated at 36,000 breeding pairs. Breeds on subantarctic and antarctic islands in a circumpolar band generally 40 and 60 deg. South. Principal locations include South Orkney and South Shetland (some 40% world population), as well as South Georgia, Prince Edward Island, Macquarie, Heard Islands, Gough, Diego Ramirez, isla Noir, Chubut and The Falklands. Sensitive to declines in numbers of seals and penguins and hit hard by longlining.

Outside breeding season, moves north into subtropical waters (~15 deg. S in Humbolt Current) off South America, Southern Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Records from Hawaii and France. Immatures tend to move further north than the adults.

South Georgia or Antarctica, January 1999. Photo copyright of Ron Saldino©, 1999.

Photographs on the web

Immature on water with Cape Petrels From Jeff Blincow's site.


Johnstone, G.W. (1979) Agonistic behaviour of the Giant-petrels Macronectes giganteus and M. halli feeding at seal carcasses. Emu 79(3): p129-132.
Murray, M.D. (1972) Banding Giant Petrels on Frazier Islands, Antarctica. The Australian Bird Bander, 10(3): p57-58.
Howard, P.F. (1956) Banding of Giant Petrels at Heard Island and Macquarie Island - II. In: (Ed.). The Emu, 56: p401-404.
Downes, M.C., Gwynn, A.M. and Howard, P.F. (1954) Banding of Giant Petrels at Heard and Macquarie Islands. Emu, 54(4): p257-262.
Ingham, S.E. (1959) Banding of Giant Petrels by the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions, 1955-1958. Emu, 59: p189-200.
Woehler, E.J. and Johnstone, G.W. (1988) Banding studies of Giant Petrels, Macronectes Spp., at Macquarie Island. Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, 122: p143-152.
Johnstone, G.W. (1977) Comparative feeding ecology of the Giant Petrels Macronectes giganteus (Gmelin) and M. halli (Mathews). In: Llano, G.A. (Ed.). Adaptations within Antarctic Ecosystems, p647-668.
Shaughnessy, P.D. (1971) Frequency of the white phase of the Southern Giant Petrel, Macronectes giganteus (Gmelin). Australian Journal of Zoology 19: p77-83.
Bourne, W.R.P. and Warham, J. (1966) Geographical variation in the Giant Petrels of the genus Macronectes. Ardea, 54: p45-67.
Cowan, A.N. (1979) Giant Petrels at Casey, Antarctica. The Australian Bird Watcher, 8(2): p67.
Johnstone, G.W. (1971) Giant Petrels. The Australian Bird Bander, 9: p86-87.
Johnstone, G.W. (1974) Giant Petrels. Notornis 21(1): p91.
Copson, G.R. (1990) Giant Petrels. In: Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds.
Johnstone, G.W., Shaughnessy, P.D. and Conroy, J.W.H. (1976) Giant-petrels in the South Atlantic: new data from Gough Island. South African Journal of Antarctic Research 6: p19-22.
van Franeker, J.A. (1996) Long-term studies of Antarctic fulmarine petrels and the role of top predators in the Southern Ocean pelagic ecosystem. Circumpolar Journal,11(1/2): p97-102.
Orton, M.N. (1963) Movements of young Giant Petrels bred in Antarctica. Emu, 63(3): p260.
Green, K. (1986) Obervations on the food of the Southern Giant Petrel near Davis, Antarctica. Notornis, 33(2): p90-94.
Warham, J. (1962) The biology of the Giant Petrel, Macronectes giganteus. Auk, 79(2): p139-160.
Shaughnessy, P.D. (1970) The genetics of plumage phase dimorphism of the Southern Giant Petrel Macronectes giganteus. Heredity, 25(4): p501-506.
Woehler, E.J., Martin, M.R. and Johnstone, G.W. (1990) The status of Southern Giant Petrels Macronectes giganteus at the Frazier Islands, Wilkes Land, East Antarctica. Corella, 14: p101-106.

South Georgia or Antarctica, January 1999. Photo copyright of Ron Saldino©, 1999.


Many thanks to Ron Saldino for generously allowing me to use his delightful photographs.

Copyright © 1999 All rights reserved. Angus Wilson
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