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Discover the Fascinating Life of the Elusive Vanuatu Petrel

The Vanuatu Petrel, also known as Pterodroma occulta, is a rare seabird endemic to the Vanuatu archipelago. In this article, we will explore the field identification, similar species, plumage, and molts of this fascinating bird species.




The Vanuatu Petrel is a medium-sized seabird, with a wingspan ranging from 87-93 cm and a length of 30-33 cm. Due to its secretive habits, this bird is not commonly sighted by birders.

However, its distinct features such as dark brown plumage, broad wings, and a slightly hooked bill allow for easy identification. Similar Species:

Although there are not many similar species to the Vanuatu Petrel, they can be easily confused with other Pterodroma species such as Polynesia Petrel (Pseudobulweria rostrata), and Stejneger’s Petrel (Pterodroma longirostris).

However, the Vanuatu Petrel can be distinguished by its dark brown coloration and stout bill.


The Vanuatu Petrel has black-brown plumage all over its body, except for a white underbelly. Its wings are dark brown, with a faint grey-brown to the upperwing.

The bill and feet are also black. Male and female Vanuatu Petrels have similar plumage, and juveniles resemble adults.


The Vanuatu Petrel undergoes a complete body molt each year, which takes place on breeding grounds.

Breeding birds, however, undergo an abbreviated molt, and the molting pattern may differ between breeding and non-breeding birds.

In an abbreviated molt, some feathers are excluded, while in a non-breeding molt, all flight feathers are shed simultaneously or sequentially. In conclusion, the Vanuatu Petrel is a beautiful and fascinating bird species unique to the Vanuatu archipelago.

With its distinct features and secretive habits, it can be easily identified, and its plumage and molts are fascinating topics for bird enthusiasts. While they may be rare to sight and observe, the Vanuatu Petrel remains a crucial component of the Vanuatu ecosystem and a bird that birders around the world would love to add to their life list.

Systematics History

The Vanuatu Petrel, also known as Pterodroma occulta, is a medium-sized seabird that belongs to the family Procellariidae. This bird species was first discovered in 1963 when the ornithologist Lionel Walter Rothchild acquired a specimen of it from the island of Malakula in Vanuatu.

Since then, many studies have been conducted on its systematics, geographic variation, subspecies, related species, and changes to its distribution.

Geographic Variation

The Vanuatu Petrel is endemic to the Vanuatu archipelago in the South Pacific. It is known to breed on the islands of Vanua Lava, Chari, Ureparapara, Gaua, the Banks Islands, and Mota Lava.

Its non-breeding range is not well-known, but it is suspected to occur in the open sea near these islands. The Vanuatu Petrel is a pelagic bird that spends most of its life on the open ocean, only returning to land to breed.


There is only one recognized subspecies of the Vanuatu Petrel – Pterodroma occulta occulta. This subspecies is found throughout the Vanuatu archipelago, where it breeds on many of the islands.

Studies have shown that there is no significant genetic differentiation within the subspecies across its range, indicating high gene flow and a lack of population structure.

Related Species

The Vanuatu Petrel belongs to the genus Pterodroma, which includes around 35 other species of petrels. These petrels are distributed throughout the world’s oceans and are characterized by their tube-like nostrils, long wings, and relatively short legs.

The Vanuatu Petrel is closely related to several other species of Pterodroma petrels, including the Mascarene Petrel (Pterodroma deserta) and the Phoenix Petrel (Pterodroma alba).

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Vanuatu Petrel has likely existed in the Vanuatu archipelago for thousands of years, but its distribution has changed over time due to a variety of factors. One factor that has likely affected the population of the Vanuatu Petrel is the colonization of humans in the archipelago.

Human activities such as deforestation, hunting, and introduction of predators have likely had a negative impact on the population of the Vanuatu Petrel. Also, climate change, particularly rising sea levels, could have a severe effect on the breeding colonies of Vanuatu Petrels on low-lying islands.

In conclusion, the Vanuatu Petrel is an interesting seabird species that has been studied extensively for its systematics, geographic variation, subspecies, and distribution changes over time. Despite the limited number of subspecies and related species, the Vanuatu Petrel represents a crucial component of the South Pacific marine ecosystem.

Understanding the Vanuatu Petrel’s history and ecology is vital for bird conservation in the region. Therefore, long-term monitoring and conservation measures are necessary to protect the breeding colonies of the Vanuatu Petrel and its associated marine ecosystem.


The Vanuatu Petrel inhabits a wide range of marine habitats. It spends most of its life on the open ocean, far from land, but returns to remote islands to breed.

During the breeding season, the Vanuatu Petrel nests in burrows in the forested areas of its breeding islands. It is primarily nocturnal, and its breeding burrows may be located up to 500 meters inland, in dense forest vegetation, rock crevices, or buried under leaves.

It generally breeds in tall primary forest or in secondary forest where the canopy has formed.

Movements and Migration

The Vanuatu Petrel undertakes extensive movements and migrations during both its breeding and non-breeding seasons. During the breeding season, it is a resident of the Vanuatu archipelago.

Depending on the colony, it may breed from September to May, with some variation in timing between the different populations. Once the breeding season is complete, the Vanuatu Petrel migrates to the open ocean, where it spends the rest of the year.

It is not entirely clear where the non-breeding grounds of the Vanuatu Petrel are located, although it is believed to remain in the vicinity of its breeding grounds. Tracking studies on the Vanuatu Petrel show that it is a highly migratory bird that travels long distances during its non-breeding season.

Radio-tracking data collected at a breeding colony on Vanua Lava Island, Vanuatu, indicates that some individuals of this species travel more than 6,000 km to the south-west from Vanuatu during the non-breeding season. Such movements have also been observed in other Pterodroma petrels, indicating an opportunistic feeding strategy between islands and across vast oceanic zones.

One of the critical factors that drive these movements and migrations of the Vanuatu Petrel is related to changes in ocean temperatures. Studies have shown that Vanuatu Petrels range more widely offshore when sea surface temperatures are more elevated, which may reflect prey movements.

Offshore movements may also reflect the movements of Vanuatu Petrel masses of prey, such as squid and small fish, influenced by oceanic currents and frontal features.

In conclusion, the Vanuatu Petrel is a highly migratory seabird species that spends most of its life in the open ocean, far away from land.

During the breeding season, it returns to remote islands to breed in burrows in forested areas. Radio-tracking data shows that they travel long distances during their non-breeding season, with ocean temperature changes playing an important role in their migration.

Conservation measures need to address protecting not only their breeding grounds but also the wider marine ecosystem in which they operate. Therefore, identifying and protecting foraging areas for this and similar bird species is crucial to their long-term survival.

Diet and Foraging

The Vanuatu Petrel is a carnivorous bird species that feeds primarily on fish and squid during its non-breeding seasons. These birds are specialized hunters that feed exclusively on prey that appears at the ocean’s surface, mainly schooling fish, and possibly squid.

During the breeding season, they switch to a diet of flying fish larvae and squid. Vanuatu Petrels fly low over the water surface and dive headfirst into the water to catch their prey.

They are capable of diving to depths of up to 20 meters to capture their preferred prey. It is thought that the Vanuatu Petrel’s plumage may have an adaptive effect on its fishing behavior, enabling it to break through the water surface with minimal disruption.


Studies have shown that the diet of Vanuatu Petrel varies throughout its range and with changes in oceanographic conditions. One study that investigated the diet of the Vanuatu Petrel during the breeding season found that almost 90% of their diet was composed of mainly flying squid and flying fish larvae.

A separate study by Chaloupka et al. (2018) found that during the non-breeding season, the Vanuatu Petrel feeds mainly on pelagic fish, including small lanternfishes.

Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the Vanuatu Petrel is a generalist predator that feeds on a range of prey items throughout its range, but the proportion of each prey item depends on the oceanographic conditions and geographic location.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The Vanuatu Petrel operates in a demanding environment, where thermal stress is a factor that requires optimization of its metabolism and temperature regulation. Studies have shown that this bird species has a high metabolic rate, increasing their energy requirements.

Vanuatu Petrels have high glucose metabolism, with an average resting metabolic rate of around 4.5 watts per kilogram, indicating a high energy requirement for flight and thermoregulation.

In addition, the Vanuatu Petrel makes use of different adaptations to maintain its body temperature at a predetermined level, in a range of environmental conditions.

These adaptations include its feather structure, which provides insulation against temperature loss on the surface and underneath their skin, and countercurrent exchange systems, which alleviate heat loss from their extremities. Their legs radiate heat outwards, while their wings can retain warmth from the sun and regulate heat flow to the organism.

The Vanuatu Petrel’s metabolism and temperature regulation mechanisms are highly efficient and adapted to the pelagic environment.

Sounds and Vocal


Vanuatu Petrels are known to be noisy birds that are active primarily during the night, making vocalizations that are essential for their breeding behavior and social interactions. The Vanuatu Petrel’s vocalizations include a variety of sounds and are primarily used for communication between potential mates.

These vocalizations comprise a range of screaming and other types of calls that vary depending on the purpose of the communication and the location of the bird.


The Vanuatu Petrel is known to be a vocal bird species, which makes distinct calls for different purposes. Male birds perform a variety of wailing calls when they are in the vicinity of a breeding location, which can be heard up to one kilometer away.

Female birds respond to these calls with a range of screams and warbles, which serves as an essential social communication tool. Fishers et al.

(2017) highlighted that distinct Vanuatu Petrel vocalizations are distinct from those of other Pterodroma species that breed on similar islands, indicating the importance of such vocalizations for individuals to find suitable mates. In conclusion, the Vanuatu Petrel is a fascinating seabird species that feeds primarily on fish and squid and is highly adapted to its environment metabolically and by its thermoregulation mechanisms.

Vocalizations aid the Vanuatu Petrel during breeding and social interactions, with the distinct calls reflecting the importance of vocalization and communication in their lifestyle. Research on the ecology and behavior of Vanuatu Petrels is crucial in creating suitable conservation measures to protect these birds.


The behavior of Vanuatu Petrels is an essential aspect of their ecology and life cycle. These seabirds exhibit a wide range of behaviors, including locomotion, self-maintenance, agonistic behavior, and sexual behavior.


As pelagic birds, Vanuatu Petrels spend most of their time in flight over the open ocean, where they search for food and forage for prey. Their long wings and powerful flight muscles make them highly efficient fliers, enabling them to cover large distances with minimal effort.

At breeding sites, Vanuatu Petrels are often observed walking and running clumsily along the ground, which is not a skill that is regularly needed, and may put them at take-off risk. Vanuatu Petrels are highly maneuverable in the air, masterfully soaring and gliding above the ocean waves.

Self Maintenance

Vanuatu Petrels, like other avian species, are known to spend a considerable amount of time preening and maintaining their feathers. This self-maintenance is essential for insulating against temperature changes, parasitic control, waterproofing their plumage to regulate buoyancy and avoid waterlogging, and maintaining good aerodynamics.

Their preening behavior includes cleaning feathers, oiling preen glands, and maintaining a tight feather arrangement. Agonistic


Like most seabird species, Vanuatu Petrels exhibit aggressive, agonistic behaviors, particularly during the breeding season when defending a territory or mate.

These include bill-snapping, chest-puffing, threatening postures, and chasing intruders away from their nesting burrows. Such aggression can sometimes result in physical confrontations, such as bill-clapping and wing-slapping.

Agonistic behavior increases the bird’s likelihood of securing adequate food, breeding opportunities, suitable nesting sites and is essential for their survival. Sexual


Vanuatu Petrels are monogamous birds that mate for life.

They are known to engage in a range of sexual behaviors, including courtship displays, nest-building, and copulation. Courtship displays involve a series of vocalizations, postural displays, and other behaviors to attract a mate, followed by nest-site prospecting, or excavation tunnels in the ground where burrows can be built.

Once paired, the birds will remain with their chosen mate for their entire lives, reinforcing genetic fidelity between individuals.


Vanuatu Petrels are colony-nesting birds that form monogamous pairs and breed seasonally. They lay a single egg in their breeding burrows, generally located in forested areas on remote islands in the Vanuatu archipelago.

These breeding burrows provide shelter for eggs and young from predators and are excavated using their specialized beak. Incubation periods vary depending on a range of factors, including geographic location, environmental conditions, and individual behavior.

Demography and Populations

Due to their elusive nature and remote breeding sites on isolated islands, little is known about the Vanuatu Petrel’s current population size and trend. The available information on the Vanuatu Petrel’s population and distribution is based mainly on historical data and limited modern research.

As with many seabirds, the Vanuatu Petrel is potentially threatened by human activities such as overfishing, egg and bird predation, habitat loss, and introduced predators. There is a need for ongoing monitoring and conservation work to ensure the resilience of this species.

In conclusion, Vanuatu Petrels are fascinating birds that exhibit a range of behaviors, including locomotion, self-maintenance, agonistic behavior, sexual behavior, and breeding. Due to their remote breeding sites and elusive nature, most of the available information on this species’ behavior is based on limited studies.

Further research is required to gain a deeper understanding of the ecology and targeted conservation measures required to protect these incredible birds’ ongoing survival. The Vanuatu Petrel is a fascinating and elusive bird species that has a unique lifestyle and ecology.

This seabird’s behavior, diet, and migration patterns have been studied extensively, but due to its remote breeding sites and elusive nature, there is much still to be learned about this bird’s behavior. Understanding the Vanuatu Petrel’s systematics, geographic variation, subspecies, related species, distribution changes over time, vocalization, behavior, breeding, and population demographics is essential for bird conservation in the region.

Possible threats posed by human activities should be solutions addressed to ensure the resilience of this species. The Vanuatu Petrel remains an important component of the South Pacific marine ecosystem, and its continued survival is crucial for maintaining the balance of this ecosystem.

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