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Overview

Comprehensive Description

The Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) is a large white tern with an orange-yellow bill and a black crest. It is common along many tropical and subtropical shores of the Americas and West Africa. (Kaufman 1996; AOU 1998)

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Distribution

Range Description

The Royal Tern is found in the Americas and the Atlantic coast of Africa. In Africa is breed from Mauritania to Guinea, ranging in winter from Morocco to Namibia. In the Americas it breeds from southern California (USA) to Sinaloa (Mexico), from Maryland to Texas (USA), through the West Indies to the Guianas and possibly Brazil, on the Yucatan Peninsula, in south Brazil, Uruguay and north Patagonia (Argentina). It winters from Washington (USA) south to Peru on the western coast, and from Texas to south Brazil on the eastern side (del Hoyo et al. 1996).
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occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

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National Distribution

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

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Global Range: (20,000-2,500,000 square km (about 8000-1,000,000 square miles)) BREEDS: locally on Pacific coast in southern California (rarely, not in recent years) and western Mexico (coast of Sonora and Sinaloa, Tres Marias Islands); Gulf coast and Maryland south through West Indies (where breeding irregular in location, year, and number of pairs; van Halewyn and Norton 1984) to northern South America (northern Venezuela and nearby islands, French Guiana), including cays in Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands; Uruguay coast and northern Argentina; West Africa. Possibly 80% of the world population breeds in the southeastern U.S. Nonbreeders occur in summer north to central California and New York, south through winter range (rare on Pacific coast south of Mexico). NORTHERN WINTER: north to central California, Gulf coast, and North Carolina, south along coasts to Peru, Uruguay, and Argentina; west coast of Africa.

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In Africa, the Royal Tern breeds from Mauritania to Guinea, occasionally farther south, and winters south to Namibia. In the New World, it is found from southern California to Sinaloa and from Maryland (rarely New Jersey) to Texas and through the West Indies to the Guianas and possibly Brazil, with disjunct breeding populations in Yucatan and in southern Brazil, Uruguay, and northern Patagonia; it winters south to Peru and to Uruguay and Argentina. (Gochfeld and Berger 1996)

The Royal Tern breeds locally on the Pacific Coast of North America, in southern California, along the coast of Sinaloa and Sonora; in the Atlantic-Gulf-Caribbean region it breeds from New Jersey and the Gulf coast south through the West Indies to islands off the north coast of Venezuela and French Guiana, and in Yucatan; in South America, it breeds on the coast of northern Argentina; and in West Africa, it breeds on islands off Mauritania. Nonbreeders occur in summer in coastal areas in the Americas north to central California and Maine, and south through the wintering range (rarely on the Pacific coast south of Mexico). Wintering range is from central California, the Gulf coast, and North Carolina south along both coasts of the Americas to Peru, Uruguay, and Argentina; and on the west coast of Africa from Morocco to Angola (casually to southern Africa). (AOU 1998)

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Physical Description

Size

Length: 51 cm

Weight: 470 grams

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Diagnostic Description

Differs from the caspian tern in having a thinner bill, underside of primaries mostly pale (vs. dark), a more deeply forked tail, and, in basic and immature plumages, a white crown and forehead (vs. dusky). Differs from elegant tern in larger size (average length 51 cm vs. 43 cm), thicker bill, less slender body, and (in nonbreeding plumage) usually lack of dark feathering contacting the eye. Averages at least 12 cm longer than other North American terns.

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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
Behaviour This species undergoes post-breeding dispersive movements northwards before migrating southwards for the winter (del Hoyo et al. 1996). It breeds between April and June (Richards 1990) in dense colonies of 100-4,000 pairs often near colonies of Laughing Gull Larus atricilla and Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis (del Hoyo et al. 1996). The species may also nest singly amidst colonies of other tern species (del Hoyo et al. 1996). It usually feeds singly or in small flocks and roosts gregariously even outside of the breeding season (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Habitat Breeding For breeding the species shows a preference for inaccessible sites including barren sandy beaches, islands in saltmarsh, dredge spoil and coral islands surrounded by shallow water and with a high degree of visibility, no mammalian predators and little vegetation (del Hoyo et al. 1996). It also forages along estuaries, in lagoons and in mangroves during this season, mostly within 100 m of the shore but up to 40 km from the breeding colony (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Non-breeding Outside of the breeding season the species forages within 100 m of the land along sheltered coasts in estuaries, harbours and river mouths, sometimes also foraging a short distance inland along broad rivers (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Diet Its diet consists predominantly of small fish 3-18 cm long as well as squid, shrimps and crabs (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Breeding site The nest is a simple scrape (del Hoyo et al. 1996) in sand (Urban et al. 1986) in inaccessible sites surrounded by shallow water near the mouths of bays with a high degree of visibility, no mammalian predators and little vegetation (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Management information The preferred breeding sites of this species are often vulnerable to flooding (del Hoyo et al. 1996).

Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Marine
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Depth range based on 394 specimens in 1 taxon.
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 225 samples.

Environmental ranges
  Depth range (m): 0 - 0
  Temperature range (°C): 9.208 - 27.517
  Nitrate (umol/L): 0.240 - 3.829
  Salinity (PPS): 32.282 - 36.362
  Oxygen (ml/l): 4.518 - 6.764
  Phosphate (umol/l): 0.057 - 0.547
  Silicate (umol/l): 0.769 - 3.817

Graphical representation

Temperature range (°C): 9.208 - 27.517

Nitrate (umol/L): 0.240 - 3.829

Salinity (PPS): 32.282 - 36.362

Oxygen (ml/l): 4.518 - 6.764

Phosphate (umol/l): 0.057 - 0.547

Silicate (umol/l): 0.769 - 3.817
 
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Comments: Seacoasts, lagoons, estuaries, rarely on lakes (AOU 1983). Loafs and sleeps on mudflats, sandspits, or salt-pond dikes (Stiles and Skutch 1989).

Nests typically on open sandy beaches of barrier islands, sandbars, sand/shell substrates; also on newly created dredged-material islands (Spendelow and Patton 1988); on remote cays in Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands. Colony site requirements: absence of quadruped predators; isolation from disturbance, combined with excellent visibility; proximity to areas of extensive shallows; and proximity to oceanic inlets (Buckley and Buckley 1984). Colonies in the eastern U.S. regularly change location (Buckley and Buckley 1984).

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The Royal Tern is found on seacoasts, around lagoons and estuaries, and at sea over the continental shelf (AOU 1998).

The Royal Tern is found along tropical and subtropical coasts. It breeds on barren sandy barrier beaches, salt marsh islands, shell bars, dredge spoil, and coral islands. It shuns vegetation. Many colony sites are vulnerable to flooding. Breeding colonies typically are difficult to access (except by flight), offer high visibility, lack mammalian predators, and are surrounded by shallow water near the mouths of bays. It feeds around estuaries, lagoons, and mangroves. Outside the breeding season, it is found along coasts and and around estuaries, harbors, and the mouths of rivers, sometimes traveling a short distance up broad rivers. (Gochfeld and Berger 1996)

In North America, the Royal Tern is found along coasts, around sandy beaches, and in bays, lagoons, and estuaries. It may also be found well offshore and in the Caribbean frequently travels between islands. At least in North America, it is rarely found inland, except for a few interior localities in Florida. It typically nests on low-lying sandy islands. (Kaufman 1996)

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Depth range based on 394 specimens in 1 taxon.
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 225 samples.

Environmental ranges
  Depth range (m): 0 - 0
  Temperature range (°C): 9.208 - 27.517
  Nitrate (umol/L): 0.240 - 3.829
  Salinity (PPS): 32.282 - 36.362
  Oxygen (ml/l): 4.518 - 6.764
  Phosphate (umol/l): 0.057 - 0.547
  Silicate (umol/l): 0.769 - 3.817

Graphical representation

Temperature range (°C): 9.208 - 27.517

Nitrate (umol/L): 0.240 - 3.829

Salinity (PPS): 32.282 - 36.362

Oxygen (ml/l): 4.518 - 6.764

Phosphate (umol/l): 0.057 - 0.547

Silicate (umol/l): 0.769 - 3.817
 
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Migration

Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.

Migrants in South America occur mostly October-early May (Hilty and Brown 1986).

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Dispersal

In the New World, the Royal Tern winters from South Carolina and the Gulf Coast to Argentina, very rarely along the Peruvian coast. Chicks banded in South Carolina colonies were recovered mainly along the Gulf Coast, Florida, and the West Indies. Chicks banded in Virginia were recovered mainly in the Greater Antilles. West African birds disperse north to Morocco; most then move south to winter from Senegal to Angola, with smaller numbers south going to Namibia. (Gochfeld and Berger 1996)

In most of its breeding range, the Royal Tern is present year-round. On the Atlantic coast of North America, some birds wander north of the breeding range in late summer. In California, the Royal Tern is more common in winter than in summer. (Kaufman 1996)

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Trophic Strategy

Comments: Eats mainly fishes up to about 10 cm long, caught by plunging into water while flying (Bent 1921, Terres 1980). Fishes well out from shore beyond breakers (Stiles and Skutch 1989).

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Associations

The Royal Tern feeds mainly on small fish (3 to 18 cm, average 6 to 7 cm) as well as squid, shrimp, and crabs. In Africa, reported prey are mostly in the fish families Clupeidae, Mugilidae, Pomadasyidae, Carangidae, and Ephippidae. In Virginia, reported prey include Menidia, Fundulus, Anchoviella, and Brevoortia. In Florida, prey include Brevoortia and Micropogonias. In California, the Royal Tern relies heavily on Pacific Sardine (Sardinops sagax). (Gochfeld and Berger 1996) On the Atlantic coast of the United States, soft-shelled (newly molted) Blue Crabs are a major component of the diet (Kaufman 1996).

In a study of Royal Tern chick diet in Virginia, terns foraged largely on anchovy (Anchoa spp.) early in the season, then switched to herrings (family Clupeidae); average prey size also increased seasonally (Aygen and Emslie 2006). In a North Carolina study, systematic observations of adults returning with food indicated that at least 18 families of fish, squid, and crustaceans were exploited, the most common forage species in both years being anchovies (Engraulidae), herring (Clupeidae), and drum (Sciaenidae) (Wambach and Emslie 2003).

The Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) and Royal Tern overlap in their distribution and often nest in the same colonies. McGinnis and Emslie (2001) studied the foraging ecology of these two terns in South Carolina and found that the two species partition food resources by spending significantly different proportions of their foraging time in different habitats and feeding on a significantly different set of prey.

Where the two species occur together, Kelp Gulls (Larus dominicanus) may steal food from Royal Terns bringing it back to feed their chicks (Quintana and Yorio 1999).

Eggs may be destroyed by sand crabs (Ocypoda arenaria). Black-headed Gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) take both eggs and chicks, but Laughing Gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla) take only eggs. (Gochfeld and Berger 1996) At least occasionally, egg predation by Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) may be quite severe (Loftin and Sutton 1979).

Dronen et al. (2007) described a new digenean trematode flatworm parasite from Royal Tern and provided a list of all parasites previously reported from this species.

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General Ecology

Nonbreeding: often in large flocks when resting on land; often in large mixed flocks when migrating.

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Behaviour

The Royal Tern usually feeds singly or in small flocks, despite its tendency to roost in larger numbers. It typically flies 5 to 10 meters above the water and plunge-dives (but does not submerge). It also performs aerial skimming and surface-dipping for bits of food that may be floating on the surface. It occasionally steals food from other individuals. Most foraging occurs within 100 meters of shore, but it may feed up to 40 km from the colony. (Gochfeld and Berger 1996) It may sometimes feed at night (Kaufman 1996).

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Life Expectancy

The longest recorded lifespan for a Royal Tern is 17 years, but according to Gochfeld and Berger (1996) this is surely an underestimate.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 28.6 years (wild)
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Reproduction

Lays clutch of usually 1 egg, May-June in southeastern U.S. and Puerto Rico/Virgin Islands, April-June in Texas. Incubation lasts 20-22 days (reported also as 28-35 days), by both sexes. Young are tended by both parents, flock with other young at 2-3 days, fly at 4-5 weeks. Usually nests in dense colony; colony size commonly over 1000 in most areas in U.S., some colonies >10,000 in South Carolina, Texas, and Louisiana (Spendelow and Patton 1988).

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The Royal Tern lays eggs in April to July in West Africa, in April in Texas, in May from Florida to Maryland, in June in Cayenne, and in November in Patagonia. Breeding colonies are dense and often quite large, frequently near Laughing Gulls (Larus atricapillus) or Sandwich Terns (Thalasseus sandvicensis). Most colonies contain 100 to 4000 breeding pairs. Density is about 5 to 8 nests per square meter. The Royal Tern occasionally nests singly in colonies of other tern species (usually at the edge of its geographic range). The nest consists of a simple scrape in the substrate (in Florida, it sometimes nests on rooftops). Clutch size is generally one (although adults have 2 brood patches), but 1 to 10% of birds may lay a second egg. Incubation period is 25 to 35 days. Young fledge at about 30 days post-hatching, but receive care from parents for 5 to 8 months and migrate south with them. First breeding is at 3 to 4 years of age. (Kaufman 1996; Gochfeld and Berger 1996)

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Evolution and Systematics

Evolution

Systematics and Taxonomy

Bridge et al. (2005) analyzed the mitochondrial DNA of a large fraction of the world's terns and correlated the results with plumage characters. Based on their new data on phylogenetic relationships among tern species, they suggested resurrecting several old genus names--including Thalasseus for the Royal Tern and several close relatives--to make nomenclature better match current understanding of relationships. This recommendation was endorsed by the American Ornithologists' Union Committee on Classification and Nomenclature (Banks et al. 2006), so the name Thalasseus maximus (Boddaert) for the Royal Tern is likely to be rapidly and widely accepted.

Mayr and Short (1970) considered the Royal Tern (T. maximus) and the Great Crested Tern (T. bergii) to together constitute a superspecies.

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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Thalasseus maximus

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


There are 7 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank.

Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.

See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.

CCTATACCTAATTTTCGGTGCATGAGCCGGTATGGTAGGTACTGCCCTTAGCCTACTCATTCGTGCAGAACTAGGTCAACCAGGAACCCTTCTAGGAGACGACCAAATCTACAACGTAATCGTCACCGCCCATGCCTTTGTAATAATCTTCTTCATAGTAATACCCATCATAATTGGGGGCTTCGGAAACTGATTAGTCCCACTTATAATTGGTGCCCCCGACATGGCATTCCCACGCATGAACAACATAAGCTTCTGACTACTTCCCCCATCATTCTTACTTCTCCTAGCCTCCTCTACAGTAGAAGCTGGGGCAGGTACAGGATGAACCGTTTACCCTCCCCTAGCCGGTAATCTAGCCCATGCTGGAGCTTCAGTGGACTTAGCAATCTTCTCCCTCCATCTAGCAGGTGTATCCTCTATCCTAGGTGCTATCAACTTTATCACCACAGCTATCAACATAAAACCCCCCGCCCTTTCACAATACCAAACTCCTCTATTTGTATGATCCGTACTTATCACTGCCGTTCTACTACTACTCTCGCTCCCAGTACTCGCCGCCGGCATCACCATGTTGTTAACAGACCGGAACCTAAACACAACGTTCTTTGATCCTGCTGGAGGTGGTGACCCTGTACTATACCAACATCTCTTCTGATTCTTTGGCNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN
-- end --

Download FASTA File

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Thalasseus maximus

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 7
Specimens with Barcodes: 10
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
LC
Least Concern

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Butchart, S. & Symes, A.

Contributor/s

Justification
This species has a very large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend appears to be stable, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.

History
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
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