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Sazima I, Haemig PD  (2012)  Birds, Mammals and Reptiles of Fernando de Noronha.  ECOLOGY.INFO 17

Birds, Mammals and Reptiles of Fernando de Noronha

Note: This online review is updated and revised continuously, as soon as results of new scientific research become available.  It therefore presents state-of-the-art information on the topic it covers.

The Archipelago of Fernando de Noronha lies in the tropical Atlantic Ocean, 3 degrees south of the equator and 345 kilometers northeast of Cabo de São Roque, Brazil (Carleton and Olson 1999).  It is the easternmost outpost of the Neotropics and consists of one main island (area = 16.9 square kilometers) with a string of approximately 12 minor islets (Olson 1994, Carleton and Olson 1999).

The island and islets of the Fernando de Noronha archipelago are volcanic in origin and have never been connected by land bridge to the South American mainland.  Consequently, all native land animals of the archipelago have colonized the islands by flight or rafting over the sea.

On 10 August 1503, the renowned explorer Amerigo Vespucci landed on the main island of Fernando de Noronha and wrote the first descriptions of its fauna for science.  He found no humans living on the island, but noted that trees were plentiful and that land birds and sea birds were in great abundance.  The only other animals he saw were lizards, snakes and "very big rats" (Carleton and Olson 1999).  At this early date, it is believed that the main island was "almost entirely forested" (Olson 1994).  Today only secondary forest remains (Stattersfield et al. 1998) ( Photo 1, Photo 2, Photo 3)

In the present report, we review the native birds, mammals and reptiles of the archipelago.  Fernando de Noronha has no native amphibians and freshwater fish, however a toad (Bufo schneideri) (Photo 4) and a tree frog (Scinax aff. ruber) (Photo 5) have been introduced there by humans (Olson 1981; Oren 1984).

Land Birds

The following species of land birds breed on Fernando de Noronha and are believed to have colonized the archipelago naturally:

  Noronha Vireo (Vireo gracilirostris)  (Photo 6)
  Noronha Elaenia (Elaenia ridleyana)  (Photo 7)
  Eared Dove (Zenaida auriculata noronha) (Photo 8)
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)  (Photo 9)

In addition, Olson (1981) reported finding fossils of an undescribed, extinct flightless rail on the main island.  He briefly added that the species did not closely resemble any rail from the mainland of Brazil.

The vireo and elaenia are endemic to the Fernando de Noronha archipelago, while the Eared Dove is also found on the Brazilian mainland.  The vireo breeds only on the main island of Fernando de Noronha, while the elaenia breeds on both the main island and on Ilha Rata, the largest of the islets (Ridley 1890; Olson 1981).  In addition, the Elaenia has been seen on still another islet in the archipelago, Ilha do Meio (Oren 1984).  During his studies on the main island, Olson (1981) found the vireo and elaenia to be "most abundant in the remaining areas of forest on the eastern end of the island and around the base of Morro do Pico."  However, he reported that both species also occurred less frequently in trees along roadsides, in shrubby areas and near houses.

The Noronha Vireo is more sharply differentiated from its mainland relatives than is either the elaenia or dove.  Olson (1994) describes it as curious and tame, allowing close approach by humans.  Compared to the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) complex from which it is derived, the Noronha Vireo is smaller in size, with a "longer, more slender bill, and a much longer tail and tarsus.  The wing is rounded rather than pointed," but has the same surface area (Olson 1994).

These anatomical features can be considered "warbler-like specializations for gleaning small insects from foliage" (Olson 1994).  Oren (1984) writes that the Noronha Vireo habitually hangs upside down, gleaning insects and other arthropods from foliage, inflorescences and tree trunks, and that it forages from "the top of the trees to the ground, where it runs short distances after its prey, reminding one more of a wren than a vireo."  Nicoll (1904) found that the Noronha Vireo's actions resembled those of the European Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus), and wrote that the vireo "is an active little bird, continually on the move amongst the leaves, now and then darting out after an insect."

A relatively new immigrant to Fernando de Noronha is the Cattle Egret.  This bird colonized the archipelago in the final years of the twentieth century and spread over the main island.  It also has a large nesting colony on one of the islets.

Many other species of land birds from the Brazilian mainland casually visit Fernando de Noronha each year, but do not breed in the archipelago (Nacinovic and Teixeira 1989).  In addition, some escaped or liberated cagebirds such as the Red-cowled Cardinal (Paroaria dominicana) have been introduced by humans and are now breeding on the main island (Oren 1982).  For these reasons, humans visiting Fernando de Noronha may see additional land bird species than the four discussed here.

Sea Birds

The following seabirds have been recorded breeding in the Fernando de Noronha Archipelago:

  Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus)
  White-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus)
  Masked Booby (Sula dactylatra)
  Red-footed Booby (Sula sula) (Photo 10)
  Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster) (Photo 11)
  Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) (Photo 12)
  Sooty Tern (Sterna fuscata)
  Brown Noddy (Anous stolidus) (Photo 13) (Photo 14)
  Black Noddy (Anous minutus)
  White Tern (Gygis alba) (Photo 15)

References:  Sharpe 1890; Oren (1982); Nacinovic and Teixeira (1989)

The Rat of Fernando de Noronha

In 1503, the explorer Amerigo Vespucci found no mammals on Fernando de Norohna except "very large rats."  Because subsequent visiters to the archipelago did not mention these large rats and, because it is unlikely that old world rats (Rattus spp.) had colonized Fernando de Noronha at this early date, Ridley (1888) proposed that the large rats seen by Vespucci belonged to a now extinct species of rat-like mammal unknown to science. 

In 1973, a joint US-Brazilian expedition, lead by the paleontologist Storrs L. Olson visited Fernando de Noronha and discovered many fossils of a large undescribed rat which may have been the species Vespucci saw.  Carleton and Olson (1999) formally described this animal, the rat of Fernando de Noronha, as both a new genus and species: Noronhomys vespuccii.  They named the genus after the island of Fernando de Noronha because they believed the rat was endemic to this island.  They named the species after Amerigo Vespucci because his writings were the only known reference suggesting "the existence of an indigenous rodent on the island." 

The rat of Fernando de Noronha was the only native land mammal of the archipelago.  When Carleton and Olson (1999) studied its fossils, they found similarities in its morphology to the semi-aquatic marsh rats (Holochilus and Lundomys) of the South American mainland.  These researchers hypothesized that Noronhomys, Holochilus and possibly Lundomys descended from a recent common ancestor. Like the marsh rats of today, this ancestor may have lived along marshes, streams and rivers, constructing its nests, "often in clusters, in trees and grasses growing along streams" (Carleton and Olson 1999).  It is easy to imagine how a group of these rodents could have become stranded on a raft of vegetation that eroded from the river's edge and was swept out to sea by currents and winds, eventually being cast up onto Fernando de Noronha (Carleton and Olson 1999).

Three exotic rodents, the roof rat (Rattus rattus), house mouse (Mus musculus), and rock cavy (Kerodon rupestris) now occur on Fernando de Noronha.  The first two are believed to have colonized the island sometime after 1503, probably from ships visiting the island (Carleton and Olson 1999).  The rock cavy was successfully introduced to Fernando de Noronha in 1967 (Oren 1984).  Another mammal, the domestic cat (Felis catus) is also now present on Fernando de Noronha, as are domestic livestock such as "goats, sheep, cattle, dogs and horses" (Oren 1984).

Marine Mammals

The spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris) uses Golfinhos Bay of the main island for resting and breeding (Maida and Ferreira 1997; Silva & Silva 2009) Photo 16, Photo 17.  Its diurnal behavior there was studied in detail by Silva et al. (2005a),  who discovered that spinner dolphins function as a food supplier to reef fishes.  This is a novel ecological role, never before reported for cetaceans.

The feces, vomits and parasites of spinner dolphins are eaten regularly by  many species of coral reef fishes at Fernando de Noronha (Sazima et al. 2003, 2006).  The black durgon (Melichthys niger) is the most ubiquitous of these offal-feeding fishes and, when associating with the spinner dolphins, its group size is positively correlated with dolphin group size (Sazima et al. 2003, 2006), Photo 18.

The spinner dolphin feeds on fishes, squids and prawns.   Individual fish pursuit and coordinated fish school herding are the two hunting tactics most frequently seen. (Silva et al. 2007)

Spinner dolphins at Fernando de Noronha occasionally hybridize with other dolphin species (Silva et al. 2005b).

The whalesucker (Remora australis), an oceanic diskfish that attaches only to cetaceans, has been found year-round on the spinner dolphins at Fernando de Noronha (Silva-Jr. and Sazima 2003, 2006), Photo 19.  The number of whalesuckers found per dolphin ranged from one to three (Silva and Sazima 2006).

The highly social nature of the dolphins may facilitate mating encounters between individual whalesuckers attached to different dolphins (Silva and Sazima 2003, 2006). 

Silva and Sazima (2006) observed whalesuckers cleaning wounds of the spinner dolphins and whalesuckers feeding on dolphin feces.  The dolphin provides the whale sucker with free transportation, a place to live and mate, and "perhaps protection from sharks, tunas and larger dolphins (Silva and Sazima 2006)."

 Terrestrial Reptiles

Two endemic species of reptiles are present in the archipelago:  a worm-lizard (Amphisbaena ridleyi) and the Noronha skink (Trachylepsis atlantica).  In addition, the tegu lizard (Tupinambis merianae) and the house gecko (Hemidactylus mabouia) have been introduced by humans (Olson 1981; Oren 1984).

The worm-lizard is limbless and is undoubtedly the "snake" seen by Amerigo Vespucci in 1503.  The serpentine appearance of this lizard "would suggest a snake to anyone save an experienced herpetologist (Carleton and Olson 1999)."  (See Photo 20).

The Noronha worm-lizard is a truly distinct form of worm-lizard, with a uniquely derived molarform dentition for feeding on snails (Pregill 1984).  On the slopes of Morro do Pico, which is the highest point (321 m) on the main island, the Noronha worm-lizard is more abundant than worm-lizards of the same genus on the mainland (Olson 1981). 

The Noronha skink is "ubiquitous and incredibly abundant" (Carleton and Olson 1999), occurring across a broad spectrum of habitats from "rocky seashore to insular forest (Silva-Jr. et al. 2005c)."  It is eaten by introduced animals such as cats, rats, and tegu lizards (Silva-Jr. et al. 2005c).  Molecular analysis of the Noronha skink's DNA shows that its ancestors came from Africa rather than from South America (Mausfeld et al. 2002).  See Photo 21, Photo 22

The Norohna skink is a "very versatile and opportunistic forager" (Sazima et al. 2005), eating a broad array of foods ranging from "flower nectar to human leftovers (Silva-Jr. et al. 2005c)."  However, plant material makes up 77% of the food volume it eats (Rocha et al. 2009).  It is not active at night (Rocha et al. 2009).

In spite of its "predominately ground-dwelling habits," this lizard is "a skilled climber," and is frequently seen visiting flowers of the leguminous mulungu tree (Erythrina veluntina), which it climbs high in the treetops to reach (Sazima et al. 2005, 2009).  Since Fernando de Noronha has no natural freshwater supply during drought periods, the nectar of these flowers may be important to the skink as a source of water, as well as a source of energetic sugar (Sazima et al. 2005, 2009).

Throughout the world, relatively few lizards are known to regularly visit flowers for nectar.  Most of these flower-visiting lizards are found on oceanic islands and they visit the flowers of herbs and shrubs rather than the flowers of trees as the Noronha skink does.  Thus, both endemic species of reptiles found on Fernando de Noronha have diverged ecologically from their mainland relatives in ways that are special and noteworthy.

 Sea Turtles

The green turtle (Chelonia mydas) breeds on a few sandy beaches of the main island  (Photo 23).  The hawksbill turtle (Eritmochelys imbricata) also occurs in the waters of the archipelago, but conclusive evidence of its breeding there has not yet been found (Photo 24).

A coral reef fish, the wrasse (Thalassoma notonhanum), associates with the green turtle as the latter species forages for benthic algae (C. Sazima et al. 2004).  This opportunistic fish feeds "on drifting particles turned loose from the bottom by the turtle's feeding activity (C. Sazima et al. 2004)."

Marine algae grows on the shells of sea turtles, producing drag and reduced speed.  To clean themselves of algae, sea turtles visit "cleaning stations" on reefs where various species of herbivorous and omnivorous fishes and shrimps live (C. Sazima et al. 2004; I. Sazima et al. 2004).  These fish and shrimps eat not only the algae growing on the turtle shells, but also molting skin and ectoparasites from the turtles' head and fins (Losey et al. 1994; C. Sazima et al. 2004, 2010; Grossman et al. 2006). (Photo 25).


Carleton MD, Olson SL  (1999)  Amerigo Vespucci and the rat of Fernando de Noronha:  a new genus and species of Rodentia (Muridae: Sigmodontinae) from a volcanic island off Brazil's continental shelf.  American Museum Novitates 3256: 1-59

Grossman A, Sazima C, Bellini C, Sazima I  (2006)  Cleaning symbiosis between hawksbill turtles and reef fishes at Fernando de Noronha Archipelago, off northeast Brazil.  Chelonian Conservation and Biology 5: 284-288

Losey GS, Balazs GH, Privitera LA  (1994)  Cleaning symbiosis between the wrasse Thalassoma duprerrey and the green turtle Chelonia mydasCopeia 1994: 684-690

Maida M, Ferreira BP  (1997)  Coral reefs of Brazil: an overview.  Proceedings of the 8th International Coral Reef Symposium 1: 263-274.

Martínez-Vilalta A, Motis A  (1992)  Family Ardeidae (Herons).  Pp. 376-429 in Handbook of the Birds of the World, Volume 1. del Hoyo J, Elliott A, Sargatal J (editors). Lynx Editions, Barcelona

Mausfeld P, Schmitz A, Bohme W, Misof B, Vrcibradic D, Rocha CFD  (2002)  Phylogenetic affinities of Mabuya atlantica Schmidt, 1945, endemic to the Atlantic Ocean archipelago of Fernando de Noronha (Brazil):  Necessity of partitioning the genus Mabuya Fitzinger, 1826 (Scincidae: Lygosominae).  Zoologischer Anzeiger 241: 281-293

Nacinovic JB, Teixeira DM  (1989)  As aves de Fernando de Noronha: uma lista sistemática anotada.  Revista Brasileira de Biologia 49: 709-729

Nicoll MJ  (1904)  Ornithological journal of a voyage round the world in the "Valhalla."  Ibis 4: 32-67

Olson SL  (1981)  Natural history of vertebrates on the Brazilian Islands of the Mid south Atlantic.  National Geographic Society Research Reports 13: 481-492

Olson SL  (1994)  The endemic vireo of Fernando de Noronha (Vireo gracilirostris).  Wilson Bulletin 106: 1-17

Oren DC  (1982)  A avifauna do arquipélago de Fernando de Noronha.  Boletim do Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi, Nova Série 118: 1-22

Oren DC  (1984)  Resultados de uma nova expedição zoológica a Fernando de Noronha.  Boletim do Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi, Zoologia 1: 19-44

Pregill G  (1984)  Durophagus feeding adaptations in an amphisbaenid.  Journal of Herpetology 18: 186-191

Ridley HN  (1888)  A visit to Fernando do Noronha.  Zoologist, ser. 3, 12: 41-49

Ridley HN  (1890)  Notes on the zoology of Fernando Noronha.  Journal of the Linnean Society London, Zool. 20: 473-570

Rocha CFD, Vrcibradic D, Menezes VA, Ariani CV  (2009)  Ecology and natural history of the easternmost native lizard species in South America, Trachylepsis atlantica (Scincidae), from the Fernando de Noronha Archipelago, Brazil.   Journal of Herpetology 43: 450-459

Sazima C, Grossman A, Bellini C, Sazima I  (2004)  The moving gardens: reef fishes grazing, cleaning, and following green turtles in SW Atlantic.  Cybium 28: 47-53

Sazima C, Grossman A, Sazima I  (2010)  Turtle cleaners: Reef fishes foraging on epibionts of sea turtles in the tropical southwestern Atlantic, with a summary of this association type.  Neotropical Ichthyology 8: 187-192

Sazima I, Sazima C, Silva JM  (2003)  The cetacean offal connection: feces and vomits of spinner dolphins as a food source for reef fishes.  Bulletin of Marine Science 72; 151-160

Sazima I, Grossman A, Sazima C  (2004)  Hawksbill turtles visit moustached barbers: cleaning symbiosis between Eretmochelys imbricata and the shrimp Stenopus hispidus Biota Neotropica 4 (1): 1-6

Sazima I, Sazima C, Sazima M  (2005)  Little dragons prefer flowers to maidens: a lizard that laps nectar and pollinates trees.  Biota Neotropica 5: 1-8

Sazima I, Sazima C, da Silva JM  (2006)  Fishes associated with spinner dolphins at Fernando de Noronha Archipeligo, tropical western Atlantic: an update and overview.  Neotropical Ichthyology 4: 451-455

Sazima I, Sazima C, Sazima M  (2009)  A catch-all leguminous tree: Erythrina velutina visited and pollinated by vertebrates at an oceanic island.  Australian Journal of Botany 57: 26-30

Sharpe RB  (1890)  Notes on the zoology of Fernando Noronha: Aves.  Journal of the Linnean Society London, Zool. 20: 477-480

Silva FJD, Silva JM  (2009) Circadian and seasonal rhythms in the behavior of spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris).  Marine Mammal Science 25: 176-186

Silva JM, Sazima I  (2003)  Whalesuckers and the spinner dolphin bonded for weeks: does host fidelity pay off.  Biota Neotropica 3 (2): 1-5

Silva JM, Sazima I  (2006)  Whalesuckers on spinner dolphins: an underwater view.  JMBA2 - Biodiversity Records

Silva JM, Pandolfo LJ, Sazima I  (2004)  Vomiting behavior of the spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris) and squid meals.  Aquatic Mammals 30 (2): 271-274

Silva JM, Silva FJDL, Sazima I  (2005a)  Rest, nurture, sex, release, and play: diurnal underwater behaviour of the spinner dolphin at Fernando de Noronha Archipelago, SW Atlantic.  Aqua 9 (4): 161-176

Silva JM, Silva FJDL, Sazima I  (2005b)  Two presumed interspecific hybrids in the genus Stenella (Delphinidae) in the tropical west Atlantic.  Aquatic Mammals 31: 468-472

Silva JM, Péres-Jr AK, Sazima I  (2005c) Euprepis atlanticus (Noronha Skink) predation.  Herpetological Review 36: 62-63

Silva JM, Silva FJDL, Sazima C, Sazima I  (2007)  Trophic relationships of the spinner dolphin at Fernando de Noronha Archipelago, SW Atlantic.  Scientia Marina 71: 505-511

Stattersfield AJ, Crosby MJ, Long AJ, Wege DC  (1998)  Endemic Bird Areas of the World.  Priorities for biodiversity conservation.  BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK

Information about this Review

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The authors are:  Dr. Ivan Sazima, PhD in Biological Sciences (Zoology) and Dr. Paul D. Haemig, PhD in Animal Ecology.

The photograph at the top of the page was taken by João Paulo Krajewski (Brazil) and shows the Noronha Vireo (Vireo gracilirostris), which both looks and acts like a warbler.

The proper citation is:

Sazima I, Haemig PD  2012  Birds, Mammals and Reptiles of Fernando de Noronha. ECOLOGY.INFO 17

If you are aware of any important scientific publications about the birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians of Fernando de Noronha that were omitted from this review, or have other suggestions for improving it, please contact:

director {at} ecology.info 

© Copyright 2003-2012 Ecology Online Sweden.  All rights reserved.


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