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  • 7/3/2010

The Day in History:

Last Pair of Great Auks Killed (1844)

great auk

The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis, formerly Alca impennis) is an extinct bird. It was the only species in the genus Pinguinus, flightless giant auks from the Atlantic, to survive until recent times, but is extinct today. It was also known as garefowl (from the Old Norse geirfugl, meaning "spear-bird", a reference to the shape of its beak), or penguin (see etymology below).

In the past, the Great Auk was found in great numbers on islands off eastern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Ireland and Great Britain, but it was eventually hunted to extinction. Remains found in Floridan middens suggest that at least occasionally, birds ventured that far south in winter as recently as in the 14th century (Weigel 1958, Brodkorb 1960). Characteristics

Mounted specimen, Natural History Museum, LondonStanding about 75 centimetres or 30-34 inches high and weighing around 5 kg (Livezey 1988), the flightless Great Auk was the largest of the auks. It had white and glossy black feathers. The longest wing feathers were only 4 inches long. Its feet and claws were black. The webbed skin between the toes was brown/black. The beak was black with white transverse grooves. There was an area of white feathers on both sides of the head between the beak and each eye. It had a reddish/brown iris. Juvenile birds had less prominent grooves in their beaks and had mottled white and black necks.



They were excellent swimmers, using their wings to swim underwater. Their main food was fish, usually between 12 and 20 cm, but occasionally up to half the bird's own length; based on remains associated with Great Auk bones on Funk Island and ecological and morphological considerations, it seems that Atlantic menhaden and capelin were favored prey items (Olson et al. 1979). Great Auks walked slowly and sometimes used their wings to help them traverse rough terrain. They had few natural predators, mainly large marine mammals and birds of prey, and had no innate fear of humans. Their flightlessness and awkwardness on land compounded their vulnerability to humans, who hunted them for food, feathers, and also for specimen collection for museums and private collections.


Egg, Ipswich Museum, Suffolk

The Great Auk laid only one egg each year, which it incubated on bare ground, with hatching in June. The eggs were yellowish white to light ochre with a varying pattern of black, brown or greyish spots and lines which often congregated on the large end, and quite large (110-140 x 70-84 mm). ExtinctionThe Great Auk was hunted on a significant scale for food, eggs and down from at least the 8th century. Previous to that, hunting by local natives can be documented from Late Stone Age Scandinavia and Eastern North America (Greenway 1967), and from early 5th century AD Labrador (Jordan & Olson 1982) where the bird only seems to have occurred as a straggler. A person buried at the Maritime Archaic site at Port au Choix, Newfoundland, dating to about 2000 BC, seems to have been interred clothed in a suit made from more than 200 Great Auk skins, with the heads left attached as decoration (Tuck 1976).

The little ice age may have reduced their numbers, but massive exploitation for their down eventually reduced the population. Specimens of the Great Auk and its eggs became collectible and highly prized, and collecting of the eggs contributed to the demise of the species. On Stac an Armin, St Kilda, Scotland, in July, 1840, the last great auk seen in the British Isles was killed by two St Kildans residents. Haswell-Smith claims that this was because they thought it was a witch.

The last population lived on an island of Geirfuglasker ("The Great Auk Rock") off Iceland. The island was a volcanic rock surrounded by cliffs, which made it inaccessible to humans, but in 1830 this rock submerged and the birds moved to a nearby island of Eldey which was accessible from a single side. The last pair, found incubating an egg, were killed there on 3 July 1844 by Jon Brandsson and Sigurdr Islefsson, though a later claim of a live individual sighted in 1852 on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland is accepted by the IUCN (BirdLife International 2004).

Today, around 75 eggs of the Great Auk remain in museum collections, and about again this number of skins. While literally thousands of isolated bones have been collected from 19th century Funk Island to Neolithic middens, only a minute number of complete skeletons exist (Luther 1996).



Analysis of mtDNA sequences (Moum et al 2002) have confirmed morphological and biogeographical studies in regarding the razorbill as the Great Auk's closest living relative. Interestingly, they were also closely related to the dovekie (little auk), which underwent a radically different evolution compared to Pinguinus. The entire lineage seems to have evolved in the North Atlantic. Due to the outward similarity to the razorbill (apart from flightlessness and size), the Great Auk was often placed in the genus Alca.

However, the fossil record (Pinguinus alfrednewtoni from the Early Pliocene Yorktown Formation of the Lee Creek Mine, USA) and molecular evidence demonstrate that the three genera, while still closely related, diverged soon after their common ancestor had spread to the coasts of the Atlantic. As mascotThe Great Auk is a mascot to Archmere Academy in Claymont, Delaware, USA, Sir Sandford Fleming college in Ontario, Canada, and the Adelaide University Choral Society (AUCS), Australia. It is also the mascot of the Knowledge Masters educational competition.

The Auk, the scientific journal of the American Ornithologists' Union, is named after this bird.

According to Homer Hickam's memoir Rocket Boys and its subsequent film production October Sky the early rockets he and his friends built were named "Auk" along with a sequential numeration as an obvious display of irony. In LiteratureThe Great Auk is the subject of a novel, The Last Great Auk, by Allen Eckert. This novel tells about the events leading to extinction of the Great Auk, as seen from the perspective of the Great Auk that winds up being the last one alive. A Great Auk (presumably stuffed) appears in the opera The Rake's Progress by Igor Stravinsky with libretto by W.H.Auden and Chester Kallman among the possessions of Baba the Turk. In the novel adaptation of "The Wicker Man" by Robin Hardy & Anthony Shaffer, but not the film, the (fictitious) Summerisle is revealed to be home to a surviving colony of Great Auks.

Source: encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com

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