First pre-modern record of the gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) in north-east Greenland

  • Gina E. Moseley Institute of Geology, University of Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria
  • Jørgen Rosvold Department of Terrestrial Biodiversity, Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, Trondheim, Norway
  • Anne Birgitte Gotfredsen Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Irka Hajdas Laboratory of Ion Bean Physics, Zurich, Switzerland
  • Olivier Gilg Chrono-environment Lab, Université de Franche-Comté, France; Groupe de Recherche en Écologie Arctique, Francheville, France
  • Kristian M. Gregersen Department of Biology, Natural History Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Christoph Spötl Institute of Geology, University of Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria
  • R. Lawrence Edwards School of Earth Sciences, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA
Keywords: Arctic, Arctic ecology, climate change, cave, Arctic Circle, geochronology


Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) is the largest falcon in the world. It inhabits a wide range of climate zones in the Northern Hemisphere, from boreal forests in the south of its range to the arid polar deserts of the High Arctic. In Greenland, because of the harsh, remote environments in which gyrfalcons live, research related to the contemporary and pre-modern periods has been limited to the north-west, central west and central east coasts, with no specific investigations being conducted for the north-east. Here, we report the first pre-modern record of a gyrfalcon in north-east Greenland, located at 80.4°N in Kronprins Christian Land. Skin tissue from a decaying gyrfalcon’s body was radiocarbon dated to 769–944 CE (common era) using a terrestrial-only calibration curve, and 1182–1456 CE using a marine-only calibration curve. Since the gyrfalcon has a mixed terrestrial/marine diet, the actual age can be said to belong between these two groups. This limited data, therefore places the presence of the gyrfalcon in north-east Greenland during a period of prolonged elevated temperatures and climate stress associated with the Medieval Climate Anomaly. Whether the gyrfalcon was part of a larger population or a straggler, and whether the species survived the whole of the Medieval Climate Anomaly in north-east Greenland, is unknown.


Download data is not yet available.


Avibirds 2012. Falcons of the world. Accessed on the internet at on 28 April 2019.

Bennike O. & Weidick A. 2001. Late Quaternary history around Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden and Jøkelbugten, north-east Greenland. Boreas 30, 205–227, doi: 10.1111/j.1502-3885.2001.tb01223.x.

Bocheński Z. & Tomek T. 2009. A key for the identification of domestic bird bones in Europe: preliminary determinations. Kraków: Institute of Systematics and Evolution of Animals, Polish Academy of Science.

Boertmann D. 1994. An annotated checklist to the birds of Greenland. Meddelelser om Grønland Bioscience 38. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen.

Booms T.L. & Fuller M.R. 2003. Gyrfalcon diet in central west Greenland during the nesting period. Condor 105, 528–537, doi: 10.1650/7147.

Brom T.G. 1986. Microscopic identification of feathers and feather fragments of Palearctic birds. Bijdragen tot de Dierkunde 56, 181–204, doi: 10.1163/26660644-05602001.

Burnham K.K. & Burnham W.A. 2011. Ecology and biology of gyrfalcons in Greenland. In R.T. Watson et al. (eds.): Gyrfalcons and ptarmigan in a changing world. Pp. 1–20. Boise, ID: The Peregrine Fund.

Burnham K.K., Burnham W.A. & Newton I. 2009. Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus post-glacial colonization and extreme long-term use of nest-sites in Greenland. Ibis 151, 513–522, doi: 10.1111/j.1474-919X.2009.00939.x.

Burnham K.K. & Newton I. 2011. Seasonal movements of gyrfalcons Falco rusticolus include extensive periods at sea. Ibis 153, 468–484, doi: 10.1111/j.1474-919X.2011.01141.x.

Chandler A.C. 1916. A study of the structure of feathers, with reference to their taxonomic significance. University of California Publications in Zoology 13, 243–446, doi: 10.5962/bhl.title.15062.

Debrosse R. & Mourer-Chauviré C. 1973. Les oiseaux magdaléniens de Pierre-Châtel (Ain). (The Magdalenian birds of Pierre-Châtel.) Quartär 23–24, 149–164.

Dove C.J., Gregory Hare P. & Heacker M. 2005. Identification of ancient feather fragments found in melting alpine ice patches in southern Yukon. Arctic 58, 38–43, doi: 10.14430/arctic387.

Dove C.J. & Koch S.L. 2010. Microscopy of feathers: a practical guide for forensic feather identification. Journal of American Society of Trace Evidence Examiners 1, 15–61.

Funder S. 1982. 14C-dating of samples collected during the 1979 expedition to North Greenland. The Geological Survey of Greenland Report 110, 9–13.

Gotfredsen A.B. & Møbjerg T. 2004. Nipisat—a Saqqaq culture site in Sisimiut, central west Greenland. Meddelelser om Grønland Man & Society 31. Copenhagen: Danish Polar Center.

Grønnow B. & Jensen J.F. 2003. The northernmost ruins of the globe. Eigil Knuth’s archaeological investigations in Peary Land and adjacent areas of High Arctic Greenland. Meddelelser om Grønland Man & Society 29. Copenhagen: Danish Polar Center.

Håkansson S. 1973. University of Lund radiocarbon dates. VI. Radiocarbon 15, 493–513, doi: 10.1017/S0033822200008961.

Hajdas I. 2008. The radiocarbon dating method and its applications in Quaternary studies. Quaternary Science Journal 57, 2–24, doi: 10.3285/eg.57.1-2.1.

Jánossy D. 1972. Die mittelpleistozäne Vogelfauna der Stánská Skálá. (The Middle Pleistocene bird fauna of Stánská Skálá.) Anthropos 20, 35–64.

Johnson J.A., Burnham K.K., Burnham W.A. & Mindell D.P. 2007. Genetic structure among continental and island populations of gyrfalcons. Molecular Ecology 16, 3145–3160, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2007.03373.x.

Karlsson G. 2000. The history of Iceland. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Krinsley D.B. 1960. Limnological investigations at Centrum Sø, northeast Greenland. Polarforschung 30, 24–32, doi: 10.2312/polarforschung.30.1-2.24.

Lamb H.H. 1965. The early Medieval Warm Epoch and its sequel. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 1, 13–37, doi: 10.1016/0031-0182(65)90004-0.

Lamb H.H. 1977. Climate: Present, past and future. Vol. 2. Climatic history and the future. London: Methuen.

Lamb H.H. 1995. Climate, history, and the modern world. London: Routledge.

Lemark A. 2010. A study of the Flade Isblink ice cap using a simple ice flow model. MSc thesis, University of Copenhagen.

McGovern T.H. 1985. Contributions to the paleoeconomy of Norse Greenland. Acta Archaeologica 54, 73–122.

McGovern T.H., Amorosi T., Perdikaris S. & Woollett J. 1996. Vertebrate zooarcheaeology of Sandnes V51: economic change at a chieftain’s farm in west Greenland. Arctic Anthropology 33, 94–121.

McGovern T.H., Bigelow G.F., Amorosi T., Woollett J. & Perdikaris S. 1993. The zooarchaeology of Ø 17a. In C.L. Vebæk (ed.): Narsaq—a Norse landnáma farm. Meddelelser om Grønland Man & Society 18. Pp. 58–74. Copenhagen: Danish Polar Center.

McNeely R., Dyke A.S. & Southon J.R. 2006. Canadian marine reservoir ages, preliminary data assessment. Open File 5049. Ottawa: Geological Survey Canada.

Møhl J. 1979. The bones from Hope Colony. In H.C. Gulløv & H.C. Kapel (eds.): Haabetz Colonie 1721–1728. Ethnohistorical studies of the meeting of Eskimo and European cultures. Ethnographical Series 16. Pp. 215–230. Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark.

Møhl J. 1997. Faunal remains from Illorpaat. In H.C. Gulløv (ed.): From Middle Ages to colonial times—archaeological and ethnohistorical studies of the Thule culture in south west Greenland 1300–1800 AD. Meddelelser om Grønland Man & Society 23. Pp. 495–501. Copenhagen: Danish Polar Center.

Mourer-Chauviré C. 1975. Les oiseaux du Pléistocène Moyen et Supérieur de France. (The Middle and Upper Pleistocene birds of France.) Documents des Laboratorie de Géologie de la Faculté des Sciences de Lyon 64. Lyon: Laboratory of Geology.

Nielson Ó.K. & Cade T.J. 1990. Annual cycle of the gyrfalcon in Iceland. National Geographic Research 6, 41–62.

Otto C. 1981. Vergleichende morphologische Untersuchungen an Einzelknochen in Zentraleuropa vorkommender mittelgrosser Accipitridae. I. Schädel, Brustbein, Schultergürtel und Vorderextremität. (Comparative morphological studies of single bones of medium-sized Accipitridae in central Europe. I. Skull, breastbone, shoulder girdle and frontal limbs.) PhD thesis, University of Munich.

Pages 2k Consortium 2013. Continental-scale temperature variability during the past two millennia. Nature Geoscience 6, 339–346, doi: 10.1038/ngeo1797.

Patterson W.P., Dietrich K.A., Holmden C. & Andrews J.T. 2010. Two millennia of North Atlantic seasonality and implications for Norse colonies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107, 5306–5310, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0902522107.

Potapov E. & Sale R. 2005. The gyrfalcon. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ramsey C.B. & Lee S. 2013. Recent and planned developments of the program OxCal. Radiocarbon 55, 720–730, doi: 10.1017/S0033822200057878.

Reimer P.J., Bard E., Bayliss A., Beck J.W., Blackwell P.G., Ramsey C.B., Buck C.E., Cheng H., Edwards R.L., Friedrich M., Grootes P.M., Guilderson T.P., Haflidason H., Hajdas I., Hatte C., Heaton T.J., Hoffmann D.L., Hogg A.G., Hughen K.A., Kaiser K.F., Kromer B., Manning S.W., Niu M., Reimer R.W., Richards D.A., Scott E.M., Southon J.R., Staff R.A., Turney C.S.M. & van der Plicht J. 2013. Intcal13 and Marine13 Radiocarbon age calibration curves 0–50,000 years cal BP. Radiocarbon 55, 1869–1887, doi: 10.2458/azu_js_rc.55.16947.

Rosvold J. 2018. Faunal finds from alpine ice—Natural or archaeological depositions? Journal of Glacial Archaeology 3, 79–108. doi: 10.1558/jga.32414

Sokolov A.A., Fufachev I.A., Sokolov V.A., Sokolova N.A., Golovatin M.G. & Dixon A. 2017. Gyrfalcons in a man-made landscape of the Yamal Peninsula (the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District). Fauna of the Urals and Siberia 2, 180–185.

Stuiver M. & Polach H.A. 1977. Discussion: reporting of 14C data. Radiocarbon 19, 355–363, doi: 10.1017/S0033822200003672.

Synal H.A., Stocker M. & Suter M. 2007. MICADAS: a new compact radiocarbon AMS system. Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B 259, 7–13, doi: 10.1016/j.nimb.2007.01.138.

Tauber H. & Funder S. 1975. C14 content of recent molluscs from Scoresby Sund, central East Greenland. The Geological Survey of Greenland Report 75, 95–99.

von den Driesch A. 1976. A guide to the measurement of animal bones from archaeological sites. Peabody Museum Bulletin I. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Wacker L., Nemec M. & Bourquin J. 2010. A revolutionary graphitisation system: fully automated, compact and simple. Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B 268, 931–934, doi: 10.1016/j.nimb.2009.10.067.
How to Cite
Moseley G. E., Rosvold J., Gotfredsen A. B., Hajdas I., Gilg O., Gregersen K. M., Spötl C., & Edwards R. L. (2019). First pre-modern record of the gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) in north-east Greenland. Polar Research, 38.
Research Articles