Gannets are seabirds comprising the genus Morus, in the family Sulidae, closely related to boobies. "Gannet" is derived from Old English ganot "strong or masculine", ultimately from the same Old Germanic root as "gander". Morus is derived from Ancient Greek moros, "foolish", due to the lack of fear shown by breeding gannets and boobies allowing them to be easily killed.
The gannets are large white birds with yellowish heads; black-tipped wings; and long bills. Northern gannets are the largest seabirds in the North Atlantic, having a wingspan of up to 2 metres (6.6 ft). The other two species occur in the temperate seas around southern Africa, southern Australia and New Zealand.
Gannets can dive from a height of 30 metres (98 ft), achieving speeds of 100 kilometres per hour (62 mph) as they strike the water, enabling them to catch fish much deeper than most airborne birds.
The gannet's supposed capacity for eating large quantities of fish has led to "gannet" becoming a description of somebody with a voracious appetite.
Gannets are colonial breeders on islands and coasts, normally laying one chalky, blue egg. Gannets lack brood patches and they use their webbed feet to warm the eggs. It takes five years for gannets to reach maturity. First-year birds are completely black, and subsequent sub-adult plumages show increasing amounts of white.
The most important nesting ground for northern gannets is the United Kingdom with about two thirds of the world's population. These live mainly in Scotland, including the Shetland Isles. The rest of the world's population is divided between Canada, Ireland, Faroe Islands and Iceland, with small numbers in France (they are often seen in the Bay of Biscay), the Channel Islands, Norway and a single colony in Germany on Heligoland. The biggest northern gannet colony is on Scotland's Bass Rock; in 2014, this colony contained some 75,000 pairs. Sulasgeir off the coast of the Isle of Lewis, St. Kilda, Grassholm in Pembrokeshire, Bempton Cliffs in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Sceilig Bheag, Ireland and Bonaventure Island, Quebec are also important northern gannet breeding sites.
The three gannet species are now usually placed in the genus Morus, Abbott's booby in Papasula, and the remaining boobies in Sula. However, some authorities believe that all nine sulid species should be considered congeneric, in Sula. At one time, the various gannet species were considered to be a single species.
|Image||Scientific name||Common Name||Distribution|
|Morus bassanus||Northern gannet (also known as "solan goose")||North Atlantic on coasts influenced by the Gulf Stream|
|Morus capensis||Cape gannet||southern Africa in three islands off Namibia and three islands off South Africa|
|Morus serrator||Australasian gannet||coast of New Zealand, Victoria and Tasmania|
Most fossil gannets are from the Late Miocene or Pliocene, a time when the diversity of seabirds in general was much higher than today. It is not completely clear what caused the decline in species at the end of the Pleistocene; increased competition due to the spread of marine mammals may have played a role.
The genus Morus is much better documented in the fossil record than Sula, though the latter is more numerous today. The reasons are not clear; it might be that boobies were better-adapted or simply "lucky" to occur in the right places for dealing with the challenges of the Late Pliocene ecological change, or it could be that many more fossil boobies still await discovery. Notably, gannets are today restricted to temperate oceans while boobies are also found in tropical waters, whereas several of the prehistoric gannet species had a more equatorial distribution than their congeners of today.
Fossil species of gannets are:
Young gannets were historically used as a food source, a tradition still practised in Ness, Scotland, where they are called "guga". Like examples of continued traditional whale harvesting, the modern day hunting of gannet chicks results in great controversies as to whether it should continue to be afforded "exemption from the ordinary protection afforded to sea birds in UK and EU law". The Ness hunt is currently limited to 2,000 chicks per year, and dates back at least to the Iron Age. The hunt is considered to be sustainable, as between 1902 and 2003 Gannet numbers in Scotland increased dramatically from 30,000 to 180,000.
In "The Bookshop Sketch" on Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album (1980), the customer (Graham Chapman) asks the bookshop proprietor (John Cleese) for "the expurgated version" of Olsen's Standard Book of British Birds, "the one without the gannet," because he claims that gannets "wet their nests." Eager to please the customer, the proprietor tears the page about the gannet out of the book.
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