Great Auk: Wikis


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Great Auk
Breeding (standing) and nonbreeding (swimming) plumage. By John Gerrard Keulemans.
Conservation status

Extinct  (1852) (IUCN 3.1)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Pinguinus
Bonnaterre, 1791
Species: P. impennis
Binomial name
Pinguinus impennis
(Linnaeus, 1758)

Alca impennis

The Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis, formerly of the genus Alca, is a bird that became extinct in the mid-19th century. It was the only species in the genus Pinguinus - a group of birds that included several flightless giant auks from the Atlantic Ocean region - to survive until modern times. The Great Auk was also known as a garefowl (from the Old Norse geirfugl, meaning "spear-bird", referring to the shape of its beak) and penguin before the birds known by that name today were so called.

The Great Auk was found very extensively on islands off eastern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Ireland, and Great Britain before being hunted to extinction. Remains found in Florida suggest that, at least occasionally, the Great Auk ventured that far south in winter as recently as the 14th century.[1][2]



Great Auk, Leipzig

The Great Auk was one of the many species originally described by Carolus Linnaeus in his 18th century work, Systema Naturae.[3]

Analysis of mtDNA sequences have confirmed morphological and biogeographical studies in regarding the Razorbill as the Great Auk's closest living relative.[4] They were also closely related to the Little Auk (Dovekie), which underwent a radically different evolution compared to Pinguinus. Due to its outward similarity to the Razorbill (apart from flightlessness and size), the Great Auk was often placed in the genus Alca. The name Alca is a Latin derivative of the Scandinavian word for razorbills and their relatives. The word impennis in Latin refers to the lack of flight feathers or pennae.[5]

However, the fossil record, especially Pinguinus alfrednewtoni from the Early Pliocene Yorktown Formation of the Lee Creek Mine, United States, and molecular evidence demonstrate that the three genera, while still closely related, diverged soon after their common ancestor, a bird probably similar to a stout Xantus's Murrelet, had spread to the coasts of the Atlantic. By that time however, the murres, or Atlantic Guillemots, had apparently already split off from the other Atlantic alcids. Razorbill-like birds were common in the Atlantic during the Pliocene, but the evolution of the Little Auk is sparsely documented.[4]

The molecular data are compatible with either view, but the weight of evidence suggests placing the Great Auk in a distinct genus.[4]

The Basque name for the Great Auk is "arponaz" while the early French name was "apponatz", both meaning "spearbill". The Norse called the Great Auk "geirfugl", which means "spearbird". This has led to an alternative common name for the bird, "garefowl".[6] Spanish and Portuguese sailors called the bird "pingüinos", which means "fat bird". The Inuit name for the Great Auk was "isarukitsck", which meant "little wing".[7] The Welsh people referred to this species as "pingwen".[8] When European explorers discovered what are today known as penguins in the Southern Hemisphere, they noticed their similar appearance to the Great Auk and named them after this bird.[9]


Great Auks by John James Audubon

Standing about 75 to 85 centimetres (30 to 33 in) tall and weighing around 5 kilograms (11 lb),[10] the flightless Great Auk was both the largest of the auks and the largest member of the order Charadriiformes. Males and females were similar in size and plumage.[8] The back was primarily a glossy black, while the stomach was white. The neck and legs were short, while the head and wings were small.[11] The auk appeared chubby due to a thick layer of fat necessary for warmth.[12] During the breeding season, the Great Auk developed a wide white eye patch over the eye.[13] However, after the breeding season the auk lost this eye patch and instead a wide white band and a gray line of feathers which stretched from the eye to the ear.[8] The eye had a hazel or chestnut iris.[14] During the summer, the auk's chin and throat were blackish brown. During the winter, this alcid molted and the throat became white.[8] The bill was large at 11 centimetres (4.3 in) long and curved downwards at the top.[12] There were deep white grooves in both the upper and lower mandibles of the bill.[15] The wings were only 15 centimetres (5.9 in) in length and the longest wing feathers were only 10 centimetres (3.9 in) long.[12] Its feet and claws were black while the webbed skin between the toes was brownish black. The legs were far back on the bird's body to give it more powerful swimming and diving abilities.[16] Juvenile birds had less prominent grooves in their beaks and had mottled white and black necks.[17]

Distribution and habitat

The Great Auk was found in the cold North Atlantic coastal waters along the coasts of Canada, the northeastern United States, Norway, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, and Great Britain.[18] The Great Auk left the North Atlantic waters for land only in order to breed.[15] The rookeries of the Great Auk were found from Baffin Bay down to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, across the far northern Atlantic, including Iceland, and in Norway and the British Isles in Europe.[15][19][20] The Great Auk's nesting colonies required rocky islands with sloping shorelines to provide the birds access to the seashore.[16] This was an extremely limiting factor and it is believed that the Great Auk may never have had more than 20 breeding colonies.[16] Only eight breeding colonies are known: Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands, St. Kilda Island off Scotland, the Faeroe Islands between Iceland and Ireland, Grímsey Island and Eldey Island near Iceland, Penguin Island and Funk Island near Newfoundland, and the Bird Rocks (Rochers-aux-Oiseaux) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.[16] Additionally, records suggest that this species may have bred on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.[16] By the late 1700s and early 1800s, the living range of the Great Auk were restricted to Funk Island, Grimsey Island, Eldey Island, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and St. Kilda Island.[19]

The Great Auk migrated south in the winter. Its bones have been found as far south as Florida and Gibraltar, while it frequented France, Spain, and even Italy in the Mediterranean Sea.[19]

Ecology and behavior

Great Auk eating a fish, by John Gould.

Great Auks walked slowly and sometimes used their wings to help them traverse rough terrain.[17] They had few natural predators, mainly large marine mammals (such as the walrus and the orca, and birds of prey,[citation needed], and the Great Auk had no innate fear of human beings. Polar bears preyed on nesting colonies of the auk.[21] Their flightlessness and their awkwardness on land compounded their vulnerability to human beings, who hunted them for food, feathers, and as specimens for museums and private collections.[22] The Great Auk reacted to noises, but were rarely scared by the sight of something.[23] The Great Auks were believed to have had a life span of about 20 to 25 years.[24]

The Great Auk was generally an excellent swimmer, using its wings to propel itself underwater.[17] These great birds were capable of banking, veering, and turning underwater.[25] The Great Auk was known to dive to depths of 76 metres (249 ft) and it has been claimed to be able to dive to 1 kilometre (3,300 ft).[26] It could also hold its breath for 15 minutes, longer than a seal.[25] The Great Auk was capable of swimming rapidly to gather speed, then shooting out of the water and landing on a rocky ledge not level with the ocean.[25]

During the winter, the Great Auk migrated south either in pairs or in small groups, and never with the entire nesting colony.[25]


The Diet of the Great Auk

This alcid typically fed in shoaling waters.[26] Their main food was fish, usually 12 to 20 centimetres (4.7 to 7.9 in) in length, but occasionally up to half the bird's own length. Based on remains associated with Great Auk bones found on Funk Island and on ecological and morphological considerations, it seems that Atlantic menhaden and capelin were their favored prey.[27] Other species suggested as potential prey include lumpsuckers, shorthorn sculpins, cod, and sand lance.[26]

The young of the Great Auk are believed to have eaten plankton and, possibly, fish regurgitated by adult auks.[24]


Great Auks are believed to have mated for life.[24] Once paired, they nested at the base of cliffs.[12] The Great Auk laid only one egg each year between late May and early June.[25] Both parents helped create a rough nest by raking guano together in a small mound, although it was also known to have incubated the egg on bare ground.[17][28] Nests in the colonies were extremely close together.[21] The eggs were pear-shaped and averaged 12.4 centimetres (4.9 in) in length and 7.6 centimetres (3.0 in) across at the widest point.[21][29] 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.[17][30] The pair took turns incubating the egg for the six weeks before the egg hatched, typically in June.[21]

The parents also took turns feeding their chick. At birth, the chick was covered with grey down.[24] The young bird took only two or three weeks to mature enough to abandon the nest and land for the water.[21]

Relationship with Human Beings

The Great Auk is known to have been preyed upon by Neanderthal men more than 100,000 years ago, since well-cleaned bones have been found by their campfires.[18] Images of the Great Auk were also carved into the walls of the El Pinto Cave in Spain over 35,000 years ago,[31] while cave paintings 20,000 years old have been found in France's Grotte Cosquer.[7]

Native Americans valued the Great Auk as a food source during the winter. Images of the Great Auk have been found in bone necklaces.[32] 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.[33] The extinct Beothuks of Newfoundland made pudding out of the auk's eggs.[24]

Later, European sailors utilized the auks as a navigational beacon, as it was known that the presence of these birds signalled that the Grand Banks of Newfoundland were near.[7]

The Extinction of the Great Auk

This species is estimated to have had a maximum population in the millions, although some scientists dispute this estimation.[24] The Great Auk was hunted on a significant scale for food, eggs, and its down feathers from at least the 8th century. Prior to that, hunting by local natives can be documented from Late Stone Age Scandinavia and Eastern North America,[34] and from early 5th century Labrador where the bird seems to have occurred only as a straggler.[35] Early explorers, including Jacques Cartier and numerous ships attempting to find gold on Baffin Island, were not provisioned with food for the journey home, and therefore they used this species as a handy food source.[36] Some of the later vessels anchored next to a colony and ran out planks to the land. The sailors then herded hundreds of the Auks onto the ships, where they were then slaughtered.[37]

The Little Ice Age may have reduced the population of the Great Auk, but massive exploitation for their down drastically reduced the population. By the mid-1500s, the nesting colonies along the European side of the Atlantic were nearly all eliminated by individuals killing this bird for its down, which was used to make pillows.[38] In 1553, the auk received its first official protection, and in 1794 London banned the killing of this species for their feathers.[39] On the North American side, eider down was initially preferred, but once the eiders were nearly driven to extinction in the 1770s, down collectors switched to the auk.[40] 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.

It was on the islet of Stac an Armin, St Kilda, Scotland, in July 1840, that the last great auk seen in the British Isles was caught and killed.[41] A then 75-year-old inhabitant of St Kilda told Henry Evans, a frequent visitor to the archipelago, that he and his father-in-law with another man had caught a "garefowl", noticing its little wings and the large white spot on its head. They tied it up and kept it alive for three days, and then killed it by beating it with a stick, apparently because they believed it to be a witch.[42][43] Eggers, individuals who visited the nesting sites of the Great Auk to collect their eggs, quickly realized that the birds did not all lay their eggs on the same day, so they could make return visits to the same breeding colony. Eggers only collected eggs without embryos growing inside of them and typically discarded the eggs with embryos.[21]

The last colony of Great Auks lived on Geirfuglasker (the "Great Auk Rock") off Iceland. This islet was a volcanic rock surrounded by cliffs which made it inaccessible to humans, but in 1830 the islet submerged, and the birds moved to the nearby island of Eldey, which was accessible from a single side. When the colony was initially discovered in 1835, nearly fifty birds were present. Museums, desiring the skins of the auk for preservation and display, quickly began collecting birds from the colony.[44] The last pair, found incubating an egg, were killed there in July 1844, with Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangling the adults and Ketill Ketilsson smashing the egg with his boot.[45] However, a later claim of a live individual sighted in 1852 on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland has been accepted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).[22]

Today, around 75 eggs of the Great Auk remain in museum collections, along with 24 complete skeletons and 81 mounted skins. While thousands of isolated bones have been collected from 19th century Funk Island to Neolithic middens, only a small number of complete skeletons exist.[46]

In popular culture

Mounted specimen, Natural History Museum, London

Charles Kingsley in the Water Babies has Tom meet the last Gairfowl on the Allalonestone who tells him the story of the end of the last colony on Gairfowlskerry and their final demise on Eldey.[47]

In his novel Ulysses, James Joyce mentions the bird while the novel's main character is drifting into sleep. He associates the Great Auk with the mythical roc bird as a method of formally returning the main character to a sleepy land of fantasy and memory.

Penguin Island, a 1908 French satirical novel by the Nobel Prize winning author Anatole France, narrates the fictional history of a Great Auk population that is mistakenly baptized by a nearsighted missionary.

The Great Auk is the mascot of the Archmere Academy in Claymont, Delaware, Sir Sandford Fleming College in Ontario, and the Adelaide University Choral Society (AUCS) in Australia.[48] It is also the mascot of the Knowledge Masters educational competition.

The Auk, the scientific journal of the American Ornithologists' Union, is named for this bird.[49]

According to Homer Hickam's memoir, Rocket Boys, and its movie 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.

The Great Auk is the subject of a novel, The Last Great Auk by Allen Eckert, which tells of the events leading to the extinction of the Great Auk as seen from the perspective of the last one alive.

Great Auk Cigarettes was a British cigarette company named after this bird.[49]

In the novel adaptation of the movie The Wicker Man by Robin Hardy & Anthony Shaffer, the (fictitious) Summerisle is revealed to be the home of a surviving colony of Great Auks.

The Great Auk is a significant factor in the children's book The Island of Adventure by Enid Blyton. Jack is a keen ornithologist, and believes that the mysterious Island of Gloom may host a surviving Great Auk. This belief leads the children to the island, where they don't find a Great Auk but do find adventure.

The Great Auk is also the subject of a Ballet called Still Life at the Penguin Café.

The Great Auk is a featured character and subject of the song "Dream too Far" in the ecological musical story, Rockford's Rock Opera.

A Great Auk captured by a fishing boat is collected by fictional naturalist Stephen Maturin in the Patrick O'Brian historical novel The Surgeon's Mate (1980). The novel, set in 1813, also provides an account of the harvesting that ultimately led to the extinction of the Auk.

Farley Mowat told the story of the extinction of the Auk, in great detail, in the first chapter, "Spearbill", of his book Sea of Slaughter.[50]

The Channel 4 TV series Extinct features the Great Auk in episode 3.

The English poet Walter de la Mare mentions the Great Auk in his short poem, 'In the Local Museum'.

Australian Author, Richard Flanagan, refers to the killing of the last remaining pair of Great Auks in his novel "Wanting"

They stood—rain pelting at window, shrouded sea—Tenderly hand in hand, too happy to talk;
And there, its amorous eye intent on me,
Plautus impennis, the extinct Great Auk.[51]

Walton Ford, the American painter, has featured Great Auks in two paintings: 'The Witch of St. Kilda' and 'Funk Island'.[52]


  1. ^ Weigel, Penelope Hermes (1958). "Great Auk Remains from a Florida Shell Midden". Auk (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press) 75 (2): 215–216. Retrieved 2009-05-08. 
  2. ^ Brodkorb, Pierce (1960). "Great Auk and Common Murre from a Florida Midden". Auk (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press) 77 (3): 342–343. Retrieved 2009-05-08. 
  3. ^ Linnaeus, C (1758) (in Latin). Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata.. Holmiae. (Laurentii Salvii).. 
  4. ^ a b c Moum, Truls; Arnason, Ulfur & Árnason, Einar (2002). "Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Evolution and Phylogeny of the Atlantic Alcidae, Including the Extinct Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)". Molecular Biology and Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 19 (9): 1434–1439. PMID 12200471. Retrieved 2009-05-08. 
  5. ^ Paul Johnsgard (1987) Diving Birds of North America. University of Nebraska Press. (Appendix)
  6. ^ Cokinos 2000, p. 333
  7. ^ a b c Cokinos 2000, p. 314
  8. ^ a b c d Crofford 1989, p. 8
  9. ^ Crofford 1989, p. 10
  10. ^ Livezey, Bradley C. (1988). "Morphometrics of flightlessness in the Alcidae". Auk (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press) 105 (4): 681–698. Retrieved 2009-05-08. 
  11. ^ Crofford 1989, p. 15
  12. ^ a b c d Crofford 1989, p. 28
  13. ^ Crofford 1989, p. 9
  14. ^ Cokinos 2000, p. 310
  15. ^ a b c Crofford 1989, p. 29
  16. ^ a b c d e Cokinos 2000, p. 312
  17. ^ a b c d e Morris, Reverend Francis O. (1864). A History of British Birds. 6. Groombridge and Sons, Paternoster Way, London. pp. 56–58.,M1. 
  18. ^ a b Crofford 1989, p. 5
  19. ^ a b c Crofford 1989, p. 30
  20. ^ Meldegaard, Morten (1988) The Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis (L.) in Greenland. Historical Biology 1:145-178 PDF
  21. ^ a b c d e f Crofford 1989, p. 35
  22. ^ a b BirdLife International (2004). Pinguinus impennis. 2006. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. Retrieved on 11 May 2006.
  23. ^ Cokinos 2000, p. 315
  24. ^ a b c d e f Cokinos 2000, p. 313
  25. ^ a b c d e Crofford 1989, p. 32
  26. ^ a b c Cokinos 2000, p. 311
  27. ^ Olson, Storrs L; Swift, Camm C. & Mokhiber, Carmine (1979). "An Attempt to Determine the Prey of the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)" (pdf). Auk 96 (4): 790–792. Retrieved 2009-05-08. 
  28. ^ Crofford 1989, p. 33
  29. ^ Gaskell, Jeremy (2001-03-15). Who Killed the Great Auk?. Oxford University Press (USA). p. 152. ISBN 0198564783.,M1. 
  30. ^ "Great Auk egg". Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service. Retrieved 2009-05-08. 
  31. ^ Crofford 1989, p. 6
  32. ^ Crofford 1989, p. 36
  33. ^ Tuck, J. A. (1976): Ancient peoples of Port au Choix: The Excavation of an Archaic Indian Cemetery in Newfoundland. Newfoundland Social and Economic Studies 17.
  34. ^ Greenway, James C., Jr. (1967): Great Auk. In: Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World, 2nd edition: 271-291. Dover, New York. QL676.7.G7
  35. ^ Jordan, Richard H. & Olson, Storrs L. (1982): First Record of the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) from Labrador. Auk 99(1): 167-168. PDF fulltext
  36. ^ Crofford 1989, p. 38
  37. ^ Crofford 1989, p. 39
  38. ^ Crofford 1989, p. 40
  39. ^ Cokinos 2000, p. 330
  40. ^ Cokinos 2000, p. 329
  41. ^ Rackwitz, Martin (2007). Travels to Terra Incognita: The Scottish Highlands and Hebrides in Early Modern Travellers' Accounts C. 1600 to 1800. Waxmann Verlag. p. 347. ISBN 9783830916994. 
  42. ^ Gaskell, Jeremy (2000). Who Killed the Great Auk?. Oxford UP. p. 142. ISBN 9780198564782. 
  43. ^ Fuller, Errol (2003). The Great Auk: The Extinction of the Original Penguin. Bunker Hill Publishing. p. 34. ISBN 9781593730031. 
  44. ^ Crofford 1989, p. 43
  45. ^ Ellis, Richard (2004). No Turning Back: The Life and Death of Animal Species. New York: Harper Perennial. pp. 160. ISBN 0-06-055804-0. 
  46. ^ Luther, Dieter (1996): Riesenalk. In: Die ausgestorbenen Vögel der Welt, 4th edition (Die neue Brehm-Bücherei 424): 78–84. Westarp-Wissenschaften, Magdeburg; Spektrum, Heidelberg. ISBN 3-89432-213-6 [in German]
  47. ^ Kingsley, Charles (1863), The Water-Babies, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-19-282238-1
  48. ^ "O’Sqweek". Adelaide University Choral Society. 2005. 
  49. ^ a b Cokinos 2000, p. 331
  50. ^ Mowat, Farley (1986). Sea of Slaughter. New York: Bantam Books. pp. 406. ISBN 0-553-34269-X.  chapter 1, pp 18-40
  51. ^ Selected Poems. Faber and Faber. 1954
  52. ^ Pancha Tantra, Taschen, 2009

Cited Texts

  • Cokinos, Christopher (2000). Hope is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. New York: Warner Books. ISBN 0-446-67749-3. 
  • Crofford, Emily (1989). Gone Forever: The Great Auk. New York: Crestwood House. ISBN 0-89686-459-6. 

External links

Simple English

The Great Auk
Great Auk by GE Lodge
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Pinguinus
Bonnaterre, 1791
Species: P. impennis
Binomial name
Pinguinus impennis
(Linnaeus, 1758)

The Great Auk was a large bird, that could not fly. People hunted it for meat and feathers. It grew rare, because it was too easy to kill, and the ones left could not breed fast enough to make up for the lost ones. The last known Great Auks were killed on June 3, 1844.[1] It lived mostly in the water, like a duck.

Penguins got their name from the Great Auk. The word "penguin" was the Celtic word for "Great Auk".[2] When sailors saw penguins for the first time, they thought they looked like Great Auks.

The Great Auk was covered in black feathers, but had white feathers on its chest and abdomen.[2] It had very short wings, like stubs, which meant it could not fly. On land it stood upright and was about 75cm tall.[2] They spent most of their time at sea, coming to shore in the summer to breed. They lived in large breeding colonies on low rocky islands in the north Atlantic Ocean from Canada to Norway.[2] Females laid one egg on bare rock. In winter they went as far south as Florida and southern Spain.[2]



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