Thalasseus, the crested terns, is a genus of eight species of terns in the family Laridae.

Sandwich Tern perched.jpg
Sandwich tern
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Laridae
Subfamily: Sterninae
Genus: Thalasseus
F. Boie, 1822

T. bengalensis
T. albididorsalis
T. maximus
T. bergii
T. bernsteini
T. elegans
T. sandvicensis

It has a worldwide distribution, and many of its species are abundant and well-known birds in their ranges. This genus had originally been created by Friedrich Boie in 1822, but had been abandoned until a 2005 study confirmed the need for a separate genus for the crested terns.[1]

These large terns breed in very dense colonies on coasts and islands, and exceptionally inland on suitable large freshwater lakes close to the coast. They nest in a ground scrape.

Thalasseus terns feed by plunge-diving for fish, almost invariably from the sea. They usually dive directly, and not from the "stepped-hover" favoured by, for example, the Arctic tern. The offering of fish by the male to the female is part of the courtship display.

These species have long thin sharp bills, usually a shade of yellow or orange except in the Sandwich tern and Cabot's tern where the bills are black with yellow tips in most subspecies. All species have a shaggy crest. In winter, the Thalasseus terns' foreheads become white.


The genus Thalasseus was erected by the German zoologist Friedrich Boie in 1822.[2] The type species was subsequently designated as the sandwich tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis).[3] The generic name is derived from the Ancient Greek Thalassa meaning "sea".[4]

List of speciesEdit

The genus contains eight species:[5]

Image Name Common name Distribution
  Thalasseus maximus Royal tern US north to Virginia, occasionally drifting north to Maryland. The southern end of their breeding range is Texas.
  Thalasseus bergii Greater crested tern from South Africa around the Indian Ocean to the central Pacific and Australia
  Thalasseus bengalensis Lesser crested tern the Red Sea across the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific, and Australia
Thalasseus albididorsalis West African crested tern coasts of Mauritania to Guinea
  Thalasseus bernsteini Chinese crested tern Fujian Province, China, and wintering south to the Philippines
  Thalasseus sandvicensis Sandwich tern northern Europe to Mediterranean, Black and Caspian Seas.
  Thalasseus acuflavidus Cabot's tern North America to northern and eastern South America.
  Thalasseus elegans Elegant tern southern United States and Mexico and winters south to Peru, Ecuador and Chile.

An early Pliocene fossil bone fragment from the northeastern United States closely resembles a modern royal tern. It may be an unexpectedly early (3.7–4.8 million years before present) specimen of that species, or an ancestral member of the crested tern group.[6]


  1. ^ Bridge, Eli S.; Jones, Andrew W.; Baker, Allan J. (2005). "A phylogenetic framework for the terns (Sternini) inferred from mtDNA sequences: implications for taxonomy and plumage evolution" (PDF). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 35 (2): 459–469. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2004.12.010. PMID 15804415.
  2. ^ Boie, Friedrich (1822). "Generalübersicht". Isis von Oken (in German). Col 563.
  3. ^ Peters, James Lee, ed. (1934). Check-list of Birds of the World. Vol. 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 341.
  4. ^ Jobling, James A. (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. p. 383. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.
  5. ^ Gill, Frank; Donsker, David, eds. (2019). "Noddies, gulls, terns, auks". World Bird List Version 9.2. International Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 19 July 2019.
  6. ^ Olson, S., Rasmussen, P.C. "Miocene and Pliocene birds from the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina" in Ray, C. E. & Bohaska, D.J. (2001). "Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, III." Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology, 90: 233-365.