Extinct Animals – Great Auk

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GREAT AUK
Scientific name: Pinguinus impennis
Scientific classification:
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
When did it become extinct? The last pair of great auks was killed in 1844, although there was a later sighting of the bird in 1852 on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
Where did it live? The great auk was a bird of the Northern Atlantic, frequenting islands off the coast of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and northern Europe.

In the roll call of recently extinct animals there is a long list of bird species, and flightless birds feature very prominently—hit hard by the spread of humans to the far reaches of the globe. Often, these birds were giants of their kind, and the great auk, as its name suggests, was no exception. The Northern Hemisphere’s version of the penguin, the great auk was a large bird that stood around 75 cm high and weighed about 5 kg when fully grown. Like the other auk species, the great auk had glossy black plumage on its back and head, while its underside was white. In front of each eye was a white patch of plumage.

Although the wings of the great auk were rather short and stubby, they were used to great effect underwater, where they would whirr away to propel the animal forward very rapidly through this dense medium. Like all auks and the unrelated penguins, the great auk was very maneuverable underwater, and it would pursue shoals of fi sh at high speed, seizing unlucky individuals in its beak. From remains of its food that have been found off the coast of Newfoundland, we know that the great auk hunted fi sh that were up to about 20 cm long, including such species as the Atlantic menhaden and the capelin. The grace and ease with which the great auk sliced through the water was not reflected in the way it moved about on land. It was built for swimming, and on land it was a very cumbersome animal, waddling around in the same way as the larger penguin species. As its feet were positioned  far back on its body, it shuffled around and may have resorted to hops or sliding on its belly to overcome small obstacles. The ungainliness of the great auk on land was undoubtedly one of its downfalls because it could be caught with such ease.

Birds, no matter how well adapted they are to an aquatic existence, are always tied to the land. They need to return to land to lay their eggs and rear their young. During the breeding season, the great auks made use of low-lying islands to mate and lay their eggs. The female great auk only laid one egg per season, directly onto the bare rock. The egg was quite a specimen, weighing around 330 g. Every egg in the breeding colony was patterned slightly differently so that parents could easily recognize their own developing youngster. The parents probably fed the hatchling on regurgitated fi sh collected during frequent fishing trips, and on this diet rich in proteins and fats, the young grew quickly. They had to, as the summer in these northern climes is very short indeed, and if the young hadn’t grown suffi ciently to take to the sea when the harsh conditions of winter descended, they would have perished.

Life for the great auk was tough, and it got a whole lot tougher when they caught the attention of humans. Europeans soon realized the great auk represented a treasure trove of oil, meat, and feathers. Their awkwardness on land coupled with an obligation to form dense breeding colonies on low-lying islands made them easy pickings for Atlantic mariners. Sailors armed with clubs would land on the breeding islands and run amok through the nesting birds, dispatching them with blows to the head. There are stories of great auks being herded up the gangplanks of waiting ships and being driven into crudely constructed stone pens to make the slaughter even easier. Once killed, the birds were sometimes doused in boiling water to ease the removal of their feathers. The plucked bodies were then skinned and processed for their oil and meat. The oil was stored and taken back to the cities of Europe, where it was used as lamp fuel, whereas the feathers and down from the bird were used to stuff pillows. The slaughter was relentless, and as breeding pairs of the great auk could only produce one egg per year, the species was doomed. It is known that the populations of great auk off the coast of Norway were extinct by 1300. By 1800, the last large stronghold of this bird, Funk Island, was targeted by hunters, and the great auk was effectively on a headlong course for extinction. The island of Geirfuglasker, off the coast of Iceland, was the last real refuge for this bird as it was inaccessible; however, the island was inundated with water during a volcanic eruption and an earthquake. The birds that survived fled to the island of Eldey, near the tip of the Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland, and it was here that the last breeding pair was killed on July 3, 1844, by two Icelanders. This last pair of great auks was killed while brooding an egg, and this, the last egg laid by the great auk, was smashed. Lonely individuals of the great auk may have scoured the North Atlantic looking for others of their kind as one was apparently spotted around the Grand Banks in 1852, but their searches were in vain, and they, too, eventually went the same way as the rest of their species.

• The great auk was just one species of a number of giant, flightless auks that inhabited the Atlantic. All of them, except the great auk, became extinct several thousand years ago.
• The great auk’s similarity in both appearance and lifestyle to the penguins of the Southern Hemisphere is a very good example of convergent evolution, the phenomenon whereby two unrelated species come to resemble each other as a result of having to adapt to similar environments.

• Bones from archaeological sites in Florida suggest that the great auk may have migrated south over the winter to escape the worst of the weather.

• The museums of the world hold many great auk remains. There are numerous skins— many of which have been used to create stuff ed reconstructions—eggs, and bones. However, complete skeletons of the great auk are very rare, with only a few known to exist. The eyes and the internal organs from the two last known great auks were removed and preserved in formaldehyde. These poignant reminders of the extinction of this fascinating animal can be seen in the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Further Reading: Olson, S. L., C. C. Swift, and C. Mokhiber. “An Attempt to Determine the Prey of
the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis).” Auk 96 (1979): 790–92; Fuller, E. The Great Auk. New York:
Abrams, 1999.

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