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Overview

Brief Summary

Sandwich terns are easy to recognize by their funny black crest. They are built for life along the coast. With their long slender wings, they can hover perfectly above the waves as they hunt for fish. Sandwich terns are very social birds. They like to nest together in large groups. They even like having other tern species and gulls around. The more birds, the better the protection from predators. Common terns and black-headed gulls are much more aggressive than the gentle sandwich tern. In the winter, most sandwich terns migrate to Africa or southern Europe.
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Distribution

Range Description

The Sandwich Tern can be found in Europe, Africa, western Asia, and the southern Americas. It breeds seasonally on the coast of much of Europe east to the Caspian Sea, wintering from the Caspian, Black and Mediterranean Seas to the coasts of western and southern Africa, and from the south Red Sea to north-west India and Sri Lanka. In the Americas, it breeds from Virginia to Texas (USA), on the coasts of the Yucatan Peninsula, Lesser Antilles, Venezuela, French Guiana, eastern Brazil and Argentina. It winters from Texas, USA down to southern Argentina, in the Greater Antilles and from southern Mexico down to northern Chile1.

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Sterna sandvicensis is considered a strictly coastal species although it may fly over large land masses during migration and inhabits some large inland lakes. In the Americas sandwich terns can be found as far north as the state of Virginia in the United States and extend southward to the northernmost parts of Chile on the western coast of South America and down to the southern reaches of Argentina along the east coast of the continent. In the Old World, sandwich terns can be found as far north as southern Sweden, extending south and west along the coast and wrapping around the tip of South Africa. Populations also exist in the Black and Caspian Seas, along the Persian Gulf and in Kenya, Tanzania and Djibouti in eastern Africa.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); palearctic (Native ); oriental (Native ); ethiopian (Native ); neotropical (Native ); oceanic islands (Native ); indian ocean (Native ); atlantic ocean (Native ); pacific ocean (Native ); mediterranean sea (Native )

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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: (>2,500,000 square km (greater than 1,000,000 square miles)) BREEDS: locally on Atlantic coast of North America from Maryland or Virginia to South Carolina or northern Florida, on the Gulf Coast from central Florida to southern Texas; Alacran Reef off Yucatan Peninsula; on various islands, Bahamas (Sprunt 1984) to northern South America (islands off coast of Venezuela from Netherlands Antilles to Soldada Rock off northern Trinidad; also French Guiana and coast of northern Argentina), including Puerto Rico (off Culebra) and the Virgin Islands (Anegada and off St. Thomas). Old World: northern Europe on coast of Great Britain, France, Netherlands, Denmark, south coast of Norway, and East and West Germany; along Mediterranean Sea in Spain, the Camargue of southern France, Sardinia, Sicily, Italy, and southeastern Tunisia; islands of Black Sea; eastern and southern coasts of the Caspian Sea. NORTHERN WINTER: north to Gulf Coast, south through Atlantic-Gulf-Caribbean region to southern Brazil, Uruguay, and northern Argentina; Pacific coast from Oaxaca to Ecuador and Peru; Old World.

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Physical Description

Morphology

Sandwich terns are medium-sized terns best identified by having a straight, slender black bill with a yellow tip and a black crown with a short crest. The underparts, rump and forked tail are white while the long, pointed wings and back are ash gray. The legs and webbed feet are black but can be varying degrees of yellow in one subspecies found in South America and the Caribbean. In non-breeding (winter) plumage the crown is mottled black and white to nearly all white and occasionally has black wing markings. In many migratory birds this change in plumage is thought to function as a sign to other birds of the same and similar species that the individual is not receptive to breeding.

Sandwich terns weigh between 130 and 311 g. They range from 36 to 46 cm in length and have a wingspan of 86 to 105 cm.

Range mass: 130 to 311 g.

Range length: 36 to 46 cm.

Range wingspan: 86 to 105 cm.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike

  • Voelker, G. 1996. An Hypothesis for Seasonal Color Change in the Genus Sterna. Journal of Avian Biology, Vol. 27, No. 3: 257-259.
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Size

Length: 38 cm

Weight: 208 grams

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Diagnostic Description

Description

Length: 36-46 cm. Plumage: rump white, other wise very pale grey above, with black crown and crest in breeding bird, white forehead and white speckling on forecrown in non-breeding bird; white hindneck collar; white below tinged pink in breeding dress. Immature forehead brownish, mottled upperparts and dark grey tail. Bare parts: iris dark brown; bill black with yellowish white tip (diagnostic); feet and legs black. Habitat: seashores and estuaries. Palearctic migrant. <389><391><393>
  • Urban, E.K., C.H. Fry & S. Keith (1986). The Birds of Africa, Volume II. Academic Press, London.
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Description

Length: 36-46 cm. Plumage: rump white, other wise very pale grey above, with black crown and crest in breeding bird, white forehead and white speckling on forecrown in non-breeding bird; white hindneck collar; white below tinged pink in breeding dress. Immature forehead brownish, mottled upperparts and dark grey tail. Bare parts: iris dark brown; bill black with yellowish white tip (diagnostic); feet and legs black. Habitat: seashores and estuaries. Palearctic migrant. <389><391><393>
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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
Behaviour This species is migratory, undergoing post-breeding dispersive movements north and south to favoured feeding grounds before migrating southward (del Hoyo et al. 1996). It breeds in dense colonies with other terns or Black-headed Gulls Larus ridibundus (del Hoyo et al. 1996) and is gregarious throughout the year, often forming feeding flocks where prey is abundant or concentrated (although it may also feed solitarily) (Snow and Perrins 1998). Habitat Breeding During the breeding season the species forms colonies on sandy islands, rocky calcareous islets, sand-spits, sand-dunes, shingle beaches and extensive deltas (Snow and Perrins 1998) with immediate access to clear waters with shallow sandy substrates rich in surface-level fish (Snow and Perrins 1998). It shows a preference for raised, open, unvegetated sand, gravel, mud or bare coral substrates for nesting (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Non-breeding Outside of the breeding season the species frequents sandy or rocky beaches, mudflats fringed by mangroves, estuaries, harbours and bays, often feeding over inlets and at sea (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Diet Its diet consists predominantly of surface-dwelling marine fish (Snow and Perrins 1998) 9-15 cm long (del Hoyo et al. 1996) as well as small shrimps, marine worms and shorebird nestlings (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Breeding site The nest is a shallow scrape on raised, open, unvegetated sand, gravel, mud or bare coral substrates preferably far from upright vegetation (del Hoyo et al. 1996) on sandy islands, rocky calcareous islets, sand-spits, sand-dunes and shingle beaches (Snow and Perrins 1998). The species forms very dense colonies during the breeding season in which the eggs of neighbouring pairs may only be 20 cm apart (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Management information The species responds favourably to habitat management such as vegetation clearance, and can be readily attracted to suitable nesting habitats by the use of decoys (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Breeding pairs are also known to be attracted to coastal locations where artificial nesting sites have been constructed (e.g. beaches of bare shingle and islands or rafts covered with sparse vegetation) (Burgess and Hirons 1992). A conservation scheme for the protection of gull and tern breeding colonies in coastal lagoons and deltas (e.g. Po Delta, Italy) involves protection from human disturbance, prevention of erosion of islet complexes, habitat maintenance and the creation of new islets for nest sites (Fasola and Canova 1996). The scheme particularly specifies that bare islets with 30-100 % cover of low vegetation (sward heights less than 20 cm) should be maintained or created as nesting sites (Fasola and Canova 1996).

Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Marine
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Depth range based on 786 specimens in 3 taxa.
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 312 samples.

Environmental ranges
  Depth range (m): 0 - 0
  Temperature range (°C): 9.290 - 27.601
  Nitrate (umol/L): 0.335 - 16.868
  Salinity (PPS): 31.982 - 37.870
  Oxygen (ml/l): 4.593 - 6.704
  Phosphate (umol/l): 0.064 - 0.890
  Silicate (umol/l): 0.769 - 11.419

Graphical representation

Temperature range (°C): 9.290 - 27.601

Nitrate (umol/L): 0.335 - 16.868

Salinity (PPS): 31.982 - 37.870

Oxygen (ml/l): 4.593 - 6.704

Phosphate (umol/l): 0.064 - 0.890

Silicate (umol/l): 0.769 - 11.419
 
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Sandwich terns inhabit a variety of habitats including sandy or rocky oceanic beaches, oceanic cliff sides, estuaries and large inland lakes. Preferred nesting sites are usually sandy beaches with little or sparse vegetation or bare rock outcrops.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial ; saltwater or marine

Aquatic Biomes: coastal

  • Visser, J., G. Peterson. 1994. Breeding Popluations and Colony Site Dynamics of Seabirds Nesting in Louisiana. Colonial Waterbirds, Vol. 17, No. 2: 146-152.
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Comments: Seacoasts, bays, estuaries, mudflats, river mouths, lagoons. In North America, nests with royal tern on unvegetated bare sand or sand-shell substrates on barrier beaches, sandflats, or dredge-spoil islands; sometimes in association with laughing gull or black skimmer. Colonies occur on dredged material islands in North Carolina, on barrier islands in South Carolina, both types of sites in Florida and Texas; the largest colonies in Louisiana occur on barrier beaches of Chandeleur Islands (Spendelow and Patton 1988).

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Depth range based on 786 specimens in 3 taxa.
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 312 samples.

Environmental ranges
  Depth range (m): 0 - 0
  Temperature range (°C): 9.290 - 27.601
  Nitrate (umol/L): 0.335 - 16.868
  Salinity (PPS): 31.982 - 37.870
  Oxygen (ml/l): 4.593 - 6.704
  Phosphate (umol/l): 0.064 - 0.890
  Silicate (umol/l): 0.769 - 11.419

Graphical representation

Temperature range (°C): 9.290 - 27.601

Nitrate (umol/L): 0.335 - 16.868

Salinity (PPS): 31.982 - 37.870

Oxygen (ml/l): 4.593 - 6.704

Phosphate (umol/l): 0.064 - 0.890

Silicate (umol/l): 0.769 - 11.419
 
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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.

U.S. breeders winter mainly in southern Central America and on Pacific coast of northwestern South America; breeders from the southeastern Caribbean and off French Guiana winter mostly over continental shelf waters off Venezuela and the Guianas (van Halewyn and Norton 1984). Migration along Costa Rican coast occurs September-early November and April-May (Stiles and Skutch 1989).

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Trophic Strategy

Sandwich terns are known to eat reef silverside, dwarf round herring, Atlantic thread herring, hardhead silverside, scaly sardines, common anchovies, mackerel, jacks, flying fish, damselfish, parrotfish, Atlantic herring, sprat, lesser sand eel and squid. The adults feed chicks different prey species than they themselves prefer to eat. It is not clear if this is due to different dietary needs of young versus adults. In instances where this species has become accustomed to human interaction, adults will occasionally accept bread.

These birds typically do not form large feeding flocks but will gather in small groups or hunt alone. They fly several meters above the water while foraging for prey. Once prey item is spotted they first hover above with beaks aimed directly downward in order to set their aim then dive-bomb into the water. First-winter birds are often less successful in catching food for themselves than older adults.

Animal Foods: fish; mollusks

Primary Diet: carnivore (Piscivore , Molluscivore )

  • Shealer, D. 1998. Differences in Diet and Chick Provisioning between Adult Roseate and Sandwich Terns in Puerto Rico. The Condor, Vol. 100, No. 1: 131-140.
  • Stienen, E., A. Brenninkmeijer. 2002. Foraging Decisions of Sandwich Terns in the Presence of Kleptoparasitising Gulls. The Auk, Vol. 119, No. 2: 473-486.
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Comments: Eats small fishes, squids, shrimps, and pelagic worms caught by diving into water while flying (Terres 1980).

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Associations

There appears to be a mutualism between sandwich terns and common black-headed gulls where the latter provides protection from predators while occasionally eating the eggs and stealing prey items of the former.

Mutualist Species:

  • Common black-headed gulls (Larus ridibundus)

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Short-eared owls, carrion crows, herring gulls, great black-backed gulls, foxes, and stoats are predators of chicks while common black-headed gulls prey mostly on eggs. Sandwich terns display little aggressive anti-predator behaviors. Densely situated nesting sites with more aggressive species of bird tend to alleviate the necessity for defensive behaviors. If necessary, sandwich terns will show defensive displays involving spreading their wings and raising their bodies to appear larger and mobbing or dive-bombing potential predators. Most of this aggressive behavior is seen during the breeding season when chicks are beginning to hatch.

Known Predators:

  • short-eared owls (Asio flammeus)
  • carrion crows (Corvus corone)
  • herring gulls (Larus argentatus)
  • great black-backed gulls (Larus marinus)
  • foxes (Vulpes sp.)
  • stoats (Mustela erminea)
  • common black-headed gulls (Larus ridibundus)

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Known prey organisms

Sterna sandvicensis (Sterna sandvicensis sandwich tern) preys on:
Sprattus sprattus
Clupea harengus
Ammodytes tobianus
Zoarces viviparus
Platichthys flesus
Mytilus edulis

Based on studies in:
Scotland (Estuarine)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
  • Hall SJ, Raffaelli D (1991) Food-web patterns: lessons from a species-rich web. J Anim Ecol 60:823–842
  • Huxham M, Beany S, Raffaelli D (1996) Do parasites reduce the chances of triangulation in a real food web? Oikos 76:284–300
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Population Biology

Number of Occurrences

Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.

Estimated Number of Occurrences: 81 to >300

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Global Abundance

100,000 to >1,000,000 individuals

Comments: Florida breeding population probably was less than 200 in the early 1980s; Gulf Coast breeding population was in the early 1980s was about 12,000 in Mississippi, 19,000 in Texas, and 50,000+ in Louisiana (Spendelow and Patton 1988). See Buckley and Buckley (1984) for information on the eastern U.S. population.

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General Ecology

Nonbreeding: may form large feeding flocks over fish schools near surface; typically loafs and sleeps in large groups (Stiles and Skutch 1989).

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Breeding

Overproduction seem to occur commonly in Sandwich terns and the investment in a surplus egg serves mainly as an insurance mechanism.
  • Stienen, E.W.M.; Brenninkmeijer, A. (2006). Effect of brood size and hatching sequence on prefledging mortality of Sandwich terns: why lay two eggs?. J. Ornithol. 147(4): 520-530
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Breeding

Overproduction seem to occur commonly in Sandwich terns and the investment in a surplus egg serves mainly as an insurance mechanism.
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It may be inferred from the studies on royal terns that nesting adult sandwich terns are able to distinguish their own eggs by visual cues alone. Sandwich terns are able to recognize their own young by visual cues and vocalizations. Young are often called out of a crèche by parents, showing that the young can also identify their parents by vocalization. Sandwich terns perceive their environment through visual, tactile, auditory, and chemical stimuli.

Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

  • Hutchison, R., J. Stevenson, W. Thorpe. 1968. The Basis for Individual Recognition by Voice in the Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis). Behaviour, Vol. 32, No. 1: 150-157.
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Life Expectancy

The oldest recorded sandwich tern lived to be 23 years and 7 months.

Average lifespan

Status: captivity:
23.58 years.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 30.8 years
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Reproduction

Sandwich terns mate in monogamous pairs within large, densely packed nesting colonies that can reach numbers in the tens of thousands. This species typically nests alongside other species, most notably the common black-headed gull in western Europe. Often Sterna sandvicensis does not initially colonize a given area, rather it does not arrive until another species has already done so.

Upon arrival to colonial sites, adult birds will begin their rituals of attracting a mate or re-establish a relationship with a previous partner. Courtship displays include a male catching one or more fish and lining them side-by-side in its bill and presenting them to the female. She may immediately consume the fish or the two may engage in an aerial display soon after the initial presentation. Copulation in this family of birds is done by the male mounting behind the female on one side. The female will move her tail to the opposite side and the male will try to engage cloacal contact while using his wings to awkwardly maintain balance.

Mating System: monogamous

Suitable nesting habitats include sandy or muddy beaches and open rock outcrops. Sandwich terns often return to colonial sites they have previously occupied before unless the habitat is deemed unsuitable. Nest sites are typically higher above the high tide line than the amount of ground actually available. Vegetation is generally avoided and mating pairs may abandon their nest sites if growing vegetation invades. Individual nests are simple concave scrapes in the substrate often lined with excrement.

Female sandwich terns lay 1 to 3 eggs per breeding season that incubate for 21 to 29 days. Birds at higher latitudes often begin laying eggs in May whereas lower latitudes begin in December. At hatching the young weigh 22 to 24 g. After 7 to 14 days some colonies will form crèches where young birds gather in large groups when parents are absent in order to gain safety in numbers. The ability to fly, or fledging, comes after 28 to 35 days. During their first year, young sandwich terns learn to catch food on their own by watching adults and practicing. Practice may include diving for actual food items or inanimate objects in order to gain accuracy. Sandwich terns reach sexual maturity at 3 to 4 years old.

Breeding interval: Sandwich Terns breed once yearly.

Breeding season: Sandwich Terns breed in the summer.

Range eggs per season: 1 to 3.

Average eggs per season: 1-2.

Range time to hatching: 21 to 29 days.

Range fledging age: 28 to 35 days.

Average time to independence: 1 years.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 3 to 4 years.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 3 to 4 years.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous

After eggs have been laid, both parents share incubating responsibilities. Both parents take turns protecting the nest or foraging for the young. Parents continue to feed young until they are fledged and able to gather food on their own. After 7 to 14 days some colonies will form crèches where young birds gather in large groups when parents are absent in order to gain safety in numbers.

Parental Investment: precocial ; male parental care ; female parental care ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female)

  • Birdlife International, 2009. "Sterna sandvicensis" (On-line). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed January 14, 2010 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/144242/0.
  • Dunn, E. 1972. Effect of Age on the Fishing Ability of Sandwich Terns Sterna sandvicensis. Ibis, Vol. 114, Issue 3: 360-366.
  • Fasola, M., L. Canova. 1992. Nest Habitat Selection by Eight Syntopic Species of Mediterranean Gulls and Terns. Colonial Waterbirds, Vol. 15, No. 2: 169-178.
  • Fuchs, E. 1977. Predation and Anti-Predator Behaviour in a Mixed Colony of Terns Sterna sp. and Black-headed Gulls Larus ridibundus with Special Reference to the Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis. Ornis Scandinavica, Vol. 8, No. 1: 17-32.
  • Stienen, E., A. Brenninkmeijer, C. Geschiere. 2001. Living with Gulls: The Consequences for Sandwich Terns of Breeding in Association with Black-headed Gulls. The International Journal of Waterbird Biology, Vol. 24, No. 1: 68-82.
  • Visser, J., G. Peterson. 1994. Breeding Popluations and Colony Site Dynamics of Seabirds Nesting in Louisiana. Colonial Waterbirds, Vol. 17, No. 2: 146-152.
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Lays clutch of usually 1-2 eggs, April-June (mostly May in Texas and Bahamas. Incubation, by both sexes, lasts 20-24 days. Young are tended by both parents, may assemble with other young in second week, fly at about 5 weeks. Nests in colony or small group.

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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Thalasseus sandvicensis

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


There are 30 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.

ACCCTATACCTAATTTTCGGCGCATGAGCTGGTATAGTAGGTACTGCCCTT---AGCCTACTTATCCGTGCAGAACTAGGTCAACCAGGAACCCTTCTAGGAGAC---GACCAAATCTACAACGTAATCGTCACCGCCCATGCCTTTGTAATAATCTTCTTCATAGTAATACCTATCATAATTGGGGGCTTCGGAAACTGATTAGTCCCACTTATA---ATTGGTGCTCCCGACATGGCATTCCCACGTATGAACAACATAAGCTTCTGACTACTCCCCCCATCATTCTTACTTCTCCTAGCCTCCTCTACAGTAGAAGCTGGGGCAGGCACGGGATGAACCGTGTACCCTCCCCTAGCCGGTAATCTAGCCCATGCCGGAGCTTCAGTGGATTTA---GCAATCTTCTCCCTCCATCTAGCAGGTGTATCCTCTATCCTTGGTGCTATCAACTTTATCACCACAGCTATCAACATAAAACCCCCCGCCCTTTCACAATACCAAACTCCTCTATTTGTATGATCCGTACTTATCACTGCCGTTCTACTATTACTCTCACTCCCAGTACTTGCCGCC---GGTATCACTATGTTGTTAACAGACCGAAACCTAAACACAACGTTCTTTGATCCTGCTGGAGGTGGTGACCCTGTACTATACCAACATCTCTTCTGATTCTTTGGCCAC------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ACA---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------GAAGTC
-- end --

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Thalasseus sandvicensis

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 31
Specimens with Barcodes: 33
Species With Barcodes: 1
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© Barcode of Life Data Systems

Source: Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD)

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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
2015

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

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

Contributor/s

Justification
This species has an extremely 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 fluctuating, 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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© International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

Source: IUCN

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