Extinct Animals The Great Auk

About the now extinct animal species the Great Auk, history, physical description, location and how the species died out.


The Great Auk

Physical Description: The Northern Hemisphere's answer to the penguin, the great auk or garefowl, was 2 1/2 ft. tall; its 6-in.-long wings resembled flippers and functioned similarly. Its back was a glossy black, while a white breast and stomach completed the familiar tuxedo look. Unlike its southern counterpart, the auk had a dark brown head and a large white spot between the eye and the beak, which was black and lined with white grooves.

Where and How They Lived: The great auk's original range included Russia, Scandinavia, Spain, Italy, and northern America. Eventually its territory was whittled down to the cold, rocky islands around Iceland and Newfoundland, were the bird's large amount of body fat kept it warm enough to enjoy brisk swims in the Atlantic Ocean. The garefowl's strong wings helped it dive in search of crustaceans and small fish to eat. The female laid on 6-in. black-and-brown spotted egg each season.

How and When Destroyed: Prehistoric men hunted the great auk until it retreated to the north seas. In the late 1400s, after the bird had enjoyed centuries of peace, French, Spanish, and Portuguese fishermen discovered the auk's hiding place and the slaughter began anew. After weeks of monotonous meals aboard ship, the men found the meat delicious, and when it was salted down it could be used to restock their larders for the return journey. The creatures were put to a variety of uses. The feathers were stuffed into beds and pillows; a dried auk could serve as a torch because of its fat content; their collarbones were perfect for fishhooks; and if there was one dead auk too many, it was cut up for fish bait. The birds spent most of their time in the sea, where they could easily outdistance a boat, but in the summer, when they had to come ashore to nest, the killing was incredible. Each butchered female meant one less baby auk to keep the species going. By the mid-1700s, there were too few auks left to make hunting worthwhile, but the local residents started turning a profit by gathering their eggs, which were considered a great delicacy. The desperate auks swam off to an isolated rock outcropping known as Geirfuglasker (Garefowl's Island), where they could finally be safe from humans. Then in 1830 a volcano on the sea floor triggered an earthquake which sank the birds' last refuge. The final count started when museum directors and other collectors entered the picture. Concerned that a species might disappear from earth before they got an egg or a stuffed specimen for their collections, these people spread the word that they would pay big money for assorted aukiana. Some enterprising Icelanders found it easy enough to row out to Eldey Island, where the last 50 auks had congregated, and clobber one or two birds or snatch a few eggs to cash in on. By 1844 only two garefowl remained. A bird collector named Carl Siemsen hired Jon Brandsson, Sigurdr Islefsson, and Ketil Ketilsson to track down some new acquisitions for him. Brandsson and Islefsson killed the last two great auks as they were balancing themselves on the rocks beside their nest, which contained a broken egg that the fishermen shattered on the rocks in disgust. The birds did, however, enjoy posthumous notoriety when an unnamed American businessman began digging for guano on Penguin Island, Newfoundland, in 1863. He discovered a cache of perfectly preserved frozen auks--over 100 of them, enough to supply twice the number of museums that had paid for the bird's extinction.

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