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Great Auk
Pinguinus impennis
– Family
Authors: Montevecchi, William A., and David A. Kirk

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Adult Great Auk, specimen; Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, IL.
Figure 1. Locations of known historical Great Auk breeding colonies in the northwest Atlantic.
Fig. 2. Funk I., Newfoundland, main breeding colony in N. America.

. . . as if God had made the innocencie of so poor a creature to become such an admirable instrument for the sustenation of man.

Captain Richard Whitbourne 1622

The Great Auk was the last flightless seabird of the Northern Hemisphere. Inhabiting the boreal and low-Arctic regions of the North Atlantic, this extinct alcid was the original Penguin. The name “penguin” has many possible derivations, including “pen-winged” or “pinioned”; “white [pen] head [gwyn]” (Welsh), referring to the white patches in front of its eyes; or pinguis (Latin for “fat”). European explorers familiar with the “penguins” of the North Atlantic carried this name to the Southern Hemisphere and applied it to the convergent, but unrelated, Spheniscidae. Like the Southern Hemisphere penguins, Great Auks lost their ability to fly as they evolved large body size to dive deeper. A Great Auk weighed about 5 kg and had diminutive wings.

As with some other Atlantic alcids (Nettleship and Evans 1985), a few major colonies characterized the Great Auk’s latest breeding distribution. Archaeological and historical evidence indicates that the species also occupied a number of smaller colonies. Probably because of human pressure, this auk was limited in historical times primarily to the northwestern Atlantic; its largest known breeding colony was on Funk Island, east of Newfoundland. Funk Island is a powerful natural monument to the tragic demise of this species (see Fig. 2). The species also bred in considerable numbers on the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and elsewhere. Colonies were apparently smaller in the northeastern Atlantic, where Great Auks bred on islands off the coast of Scotland, Iceland, and possibly Greenland and Norway. In winter, many individuals moved to the Grand Banks, and at least some moved southward to New England.

The Great Auk incubated its single egg on bare rocks on the offshore islands to which its breeding was restricted in historical times. What is known of its feeding ecology and biology is largely conjecture. Flightlessness was an extreme adaptation for pursuit-diving. Reconstructions of fish remains found in soil samples from sites where birds were slaughtered suggest that the Great Auk preyed on large fish. Recent stable isotopic analyses of Great Auk bones indicate that adults may have regurgitated crustaceans to chicks, another possible convergence with penguins of the Southern Hemisphere.

The abundance of Great Auk remains in prehistoric middens in Newfoundland and northern Europe demonstrate its coexistence with humans for millennia. Flightlessness, dense aggregations at a small number of large colonies, and large body size made the Great Auk especially susceptible to human overexploitation for food, fat, bait, and feathers. Ultimate extinction was caused by the collection of specimens for museums and private collectors; on Eldey Island, Iceland, in 1844, the last 2 confirmed adults were killed for European collectors.

Studies of Great Auks are primarily historical in nature. Yet history is not static; new insights often arise from archaeological discoveries, accounts in diaries and ships’ logs, and other sources that come to light. Such information often times helps revise current knowledge. Furthermore, creative new approaches that integrate studies of preserved material in museums with oceanographic and geographic knowledge can generate novel insights. Modern biochemical and geochemical techniques can, using museum specimens, produce new information about feeding ecology and genetics. We expect such developments to continue; it is clear that physiological, ecological, and genetic studies on extinct species are far from dead.