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Temporal range: Early Eocene to present
Red-billed Tropicbird
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Phaethontiformes
Family: Phaethontidae
Brandt, 1840
Genus: Phaethon
Linnaeus, 1758
Type species
Phaethon aethereus (red-billed tropicbird)
Linnaeus, 1758
  • Leptophaethon Mathews 1913
  • Lepturus Moehring 1752 nom rej.
  • Lepturus Brisson 1760
  • Scaeophaethon Mathews 1913
  • Phoenicurus Bonaparte 1855 non Forster 1817
  • Tropicophilus Stephens 1826

Tropicbirds are a family, Phaethontidae, of tropical pelagic seabirds. They are the sole living representatives of the order Phaethontiformes. For many years they were considered part of the Pelecaniformes, but genetics indicates they are most closely related to the Eurypygiformes. There are three species in one genus, Phaethon. The scientific names are derived from Ancient Greek phaethon, "sun".[2] They have predominantly white plumage with elongated tail feathers and small feeble legs and feet.

Taxonomy, systematics and evolution[edit]

The genus Phaethon was introduced in 1758 by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae.[3] The name is from Ancient Greek phaethōn meaning "sun".[4] The type species was designated as the red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus) by George Robert Gray in 1840.[5][6]

Tropicbirds were traditionally grouped in the order Pelecaniformes, which contained the pelicans, cormorants and shags, darters, gannets and boobies and frigatebirds; in the Sibley–Ahlquist taxonomy, the Pelecaniformes were united with other groups into a large "Ciconiiformes". More recently this grouping has been found to be massively paraphyletic (missing closer relatives of its distantly related groups) and split again.

Microscopic analysis of eggshell structure by Konstantin Mikhailov in 1995 found that the eggshells of tropicbirds lacked the covering of thick microglobular material of other Pelecaniformes.[7] Jarvis, et al.'s 2014 paper "Whole-genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds" aligns the tropicbirds most closely with the sunbittern and the kagu of the Eurypygiformes, with these two clades forming the sister group of the "core water birds", the Aequornithes, and the Metaves hypothesis abandoned.[8]

The red-billed tropicbird is basal within the genus. The split between the red-billed tropicbird and the other two tropicbirds is hypothesized to have taken place about six million years ago, with the split between the red-tailed and white-tailed tropicbird taking place about four million years ago.[9]

Phaethusavis and Heliadornis are prehistoric genera of tropicbirds described from fossils.

Extant species[edit]

Genus PhaethonLinnaeus, 1758 – Three species
Common name Scientific name and subspecies Range Size and ecology IUCN status and estimated population
Red-billed tropicbird

Phaethon aethereus
Linnaeus, 1758

Three subspecies
  • P. a. aethereus Linnaeus, 1758
  • P. a. mesonauta J. L. Peters, 1930
  • P. a. indicus A. O. Hume, 1876
Central Atlantic, East Pacific, Caribbean, and East Atlantic, Persian Gulf, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea
Map of range



Red-tailed tropicbird

Phaethon rubricauda
Boddaert, 1783

Four subspecies
  • P. r. rubricauda Boddaert, 1783
  • P. r. westralis Mathews, 1912
  • P. r. roseotinctus Mathews, 1926
  • P. r. melanorhynchos Gmelin, 1789
southern Indian, and western and central Pacific Oceans, from the African coast to Indonesia, the waters around the southern reaches of Japan, across to Chile
Map of range



White-tailed tropicbird

Phaethon lepturus
Daudin, 1802

Six subspecies
  • P. l. lepturus
  • P. l. fulvus
  • P. l. dorotheae
  • P. l. catesbyi
  • P. l. ascensionis
  • P. l. europae
tropical Atlantic, western Pacific and Indian Oceans
Map of range




Red-tailed tropicbird at Midway Atoll

Tropicbirds range in size from 76 cm to 102 cm in length and 94 cm to 112 cm in wingspan. Their plumage is predominantly white, with elongated central tail feathers. The three species have different combinations of black markings on the face, back, and wings. Their bills are large, powerful and slightly decurved. Their heads are large and their necks are short and thick. They have totipalmate feet (that is, all four toes are connected by a web). The legs of a tropicbird are located far back on their body, making walking impossible, so that they can only move on land by pushing themselves forward with their feet.[10]

The tropicbirds' call is typically a loud, piercing, shrill, but grating whistle, or crackle. These are often given in a rapid series when they are in a display flight at the colony. In old literature they were referred to as boatswain (bo'sun'/bosun) birds due their loud whistling calls.[11]

Red-billed tropicbird, Genovesa Island, Galapagos

Behaviour and ecology[edit]

Tropicbirds frequently catch their prey by hovering and then plunge-diving, typically only into the surface-layer of the waters. They eat mostly fish, especially flying fish, and occasionally squid.[10] Tropicbirds tend to avoid multi-species feeding flocks, unlike the frigatebirds, which have similar diets.

White-tailed tropicbird nesting on the ground on Cousin Island

Tropicbirds are usually solitary or in pairs away from breeding colonies. There they engage in spectacular courtship displays. For several minutes, groups of 2–20 birds simultaneously and repeatedly fly around one another in large, vertical circles, while swinging the tail streamers from side to side. If the female likes the presentation, she will mate with the male in his prospective nest-site. Occasionally, disputes will occur between males trying to protect their mates and nesting areas.

Tropicbirds generally nest in holes or crevices on the bare ground. The female lays one white egg, spotted brown, and incubates for 40–46 days. The incubation is performed by both parents, but mostly the female, while the male brings food to feed the female. The chick hatches with grey down. It will stay alone in the nest while both parents search for food, and they will feed the chick twice every three days until fledging, about 12–13 weeks after hatching. The young are not able to fly initially; they will float on the ocean for several days to lose weight before flight.

Tropicbird chicks have slower growth than nearshore birds, and they tend to accumulate fat deposits while young. That, along with one-egg clutches, appears to be an adaptation to a pelagic lifestyle where food is often gathered in large amounts, but may be hard to find.


  1. ^ "Part 7- Vertebrates". Collection of genus-group names in a systematic arrangement. 2007. Archived from the original on 5 October 2016. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  2. ^ Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. p. 301. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.
  3. ^ Linnaeus, Carl (1758). Systema Naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis (in Latin). Vol. 1 (10th ed.). Holmiae (Stockholm): Laurentii Salvii. p. 134.
  4. ^ Jobling, James A. (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. p. 301. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.
  5. ^ Gray, George Robert (1840). A List of the Genera of Birds : with an Indication of the Typical Species of Each Genus. London: R. and J.E. Taylor. p. 80.
  6. ^ Mayr, Ernst; Cottrell, G. William, eds. (1979). Check-List of Birds of the World. Vol. 1 (2nd ed.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Museum of Comparative Zoology. p. 155.
  7. ^ Mikhailov, Konstantin E. (1995). "Eggshell structure in the shoebill and pelecaniform birds: comparison with hamerkop, herons, ibises and storks". Canadian Journal of Zoology. 73 (9): 1754–70. doi:10.1139/z95-207.
  8. ^ Jarvis, Erich D.; et al. (2014). "Whole-genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds". Science. 346 (6215): 1320–1331. Bibcode:2014Sci...346.1320J. doi:10.1126/science.1253451. PMC 4405904. PMID 25504713.
  9. ^ Kennedy, Martyn; Spencer, Hamish G (2004). "Phylogenies of the frigatebirds (Fregatidae) and tropicbirds (Phaethonidae), two divergent groups of the traditional order Pelecaniformes, inferred from mitochondrial DNA sequences". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 31 (1): 31–38. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2003.07.007. ISSN 1055-7903. PMID 15019606.
  10. ^ a b Schreiber, E.A. (1991). Forshaw, Joseph (ed.). Encyclopaedia of Animals: Birds. London: Merehurst Press. p. 63. ISBN 978-1-85391-186-6.
  11. ^ Green, J.F. (1887). Ocean Birds. London: R.H. Porter. p. 52.


  • Boland, C. R. J.; Double, M. C.; Baker, G. B. (2004). "Assortative mating by tail streamer length in red-tailed tropicbirds Phaethon rubricauda breeding in the Coral Sea". Ibis. 146 (4): 687–690. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919x.2004.00310.x. (HTML abstract)
  • Oiseaux.net (2006): Red-billed Tropicbird. Retrieved 4-SEP-2006.
  • Spear, Larry B.; Ainley, David G. (2005). "At-sea behaviour and habitat use by tropicbirds in the eastern Pacific". Ibis. 147 (2): 391–407. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919x.2005.00418.x. (HTML abstract)

External links[edit]