Great auk

Last of these beautifully glossy, black and white birds were hunted in 1844 off the coast of Iceland

John James Audubon

The great auk was a large, flightless bird that once thrived in the cold North Atlantic waters from North America to northern Europe. It became extinct in the mid-19th century due to human exploitation and is often regarded as one of the most well-known examples of human-caused extinction in modern times.

With its striking black and white plumage, the great auk bore a superficial resemblance to penguins, which are not closely related but share similar ecological niches due to convergent evolution. The great auk’s black upperparts and white underparts were adapted for thermoregulation and camouflage in its marine environment, while its large size, believed to reach up to 75-85 cm (30-33 inches) tall, and its robust, paddle-like wings made it an excellent swimmer.

The bird’s anatomy was highly specialized for diving and swimming underwater. Its wings, though small and insufficient for flight, were powerful tools for propulsion through water, allowing the great auk to chase after schools of fish with agility. Studies of the great auk’s skeletal structure and recovered bills suggest that it was a skilled hunter capable of catching and consuming large fish, which constituted the bulk of its diet.

By the early 1800s, the great auk’s population had dwindled alarmingly. The birds were heavily exploited for their feathers, meat, and oil. As the most accessible islands were depleted of birds, the great auk retreated to more isolated breeding grounds, which ultimately did not offer sufficient refuge from human predation.

The demise of the great auk is a cautionary tale about the impact of human activities on wildlife. It underscores the importance of conservation and the need to protect species and habitats that are currently at risk.

Distribution

Country
Population est.
Status
Year
Comments
Canada
0
Official estimate
EX
2021
Extinct 1770s
Faroe Islands
0
Official estimate
EX
2021
Extinct locally
Greenland
0
Official estimate
EX
2021
Extinct locally
Iceland
0
Official estimate
EX
2021
Extinct 1844
Ireland
0
Official estimate
EX
2021
Extinct locally
United Kingdom
0
Official estimate
EX
2021
Last seen 1840

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Terrestrial / Aquatic

Altricial / Precocial

Polygamous / Monogamous

Dimorphic (size) / Monomorphic

Active: Diurnal / Nocturnal

Social behavior: Solitary / Pack / Herd / Flock

Diet: Carnivore / Herbivore / Omnivore / Piscivorous / Insectivore

Migratory: Yes / No

Domesticated: Yes / No

Dangerous: Yes / No