Great auk

Extinct in 1852
  • Great auk
  • Great auk

Great auk – The Penguin of the Northern Hemisphere

The Great auk (Pinguinus impennis) was a flightless seabird of the alcid family.It bred in colonies on rocky islands off the cold North Atlantic coasts of Canada,northeastern US, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Great Britain. For their nesting colonies the great auks required rocky islands with sloping shorelines that provided access to the seashore, but far off the mainland to be protected from polar bears.

Japanese sea lion, painted by Settan Hasegawa

Drawing of the Great auk in its natural habitat in 19 century (Click to view larger image).

They nested in extremely dense and social colonies and mated probably for life.They laid one egg on bare rocks. The egg was white with variable brown marbling and measured 12-13 cm in length and 7.5-8 cm across its widest point. Both parents incubated the egg for about 6 weeks before the young hatched. The chick left the nest site after 2-3 weeks, although the parents continued to care for it.

Stuffed specimen of the Great auk@Paris Natural History Museum The Great auk on the stamp of Cuba

Stuffed specimen of the Great auk
@Paris Natural History Museum
(Click to view larger image).

The Great auk on the stamp of Cuba
(Click to view larger image).

After the chicks fledged, the Great auk migrated away from the breeding colonies and tended to go southward during late autumn and winter time. They spent their time foraging in the waters of the cold North Atlantic, ranging as far south as France and northern Spain. Even in Kiel, the German city at the Baltic Sea, a Great auk was shot in 1770.
An adult Great auk was approximately 75 cm long and weighed around 5 kilograms. The auks living further north averaged larger in size than the more southerly birds. Males and females were similar in plumage, although there is evidence for differences in size, particularly in the beak.

The Great auk on the stamp of Cuba

The Great auk on the stamp of Cuba
(Click to view larger image).

The Great auk’s wings being used in swimming underwater measured less than 15 centimeters in length and the longest wing feathers were only 10 cm long and had a white border at their end. The form and feather structure reminds on the wings of other auk species. But because of the wings’ small size and the heavy body weight the Great auk was flightless. Although agile in the water, the Great auk was clumsy on land. On land,it stood and walked erect.
Their feet and short claws were black, while the webbed skin between the toes was brownish black. The legs were far back on the bird's body, which gave it powerful swimming and diving abilities. Indeed, the auk was a powerful swimmer, a trait that it used in hunting. Sub-arctic fishes like the Atlantic menhaden and Capelin were their favorite prey. The large, about 11 cm long, black beak was heavy and hooked at the top downwards to catch fish. It bore eight or more transverse grooves on the surface of the upper and lower mandible.

Three drawings of the Great auk in 19 century Three drawings of the Great auk in 19 century

Drawings of the Great auk in 19 century
(Click to view larger image).

Drawings of the Great auk in 19 century
(Click to view larger image).

The Great auks had a black back and head, a white front and during summer time their plumage showed a large white spot over each eye. During the winter, these patches were lost and a white band stretching between the eyes was developed.
Early European explorers to the Americas used the auk as a convenient food source or as fishing bait, reducing its numbers. The bird's downs were in high demand in Europe, a factor which largely eliminated the European populations by the mid-16th century. By hunting for its feathers, meat, fat and oil the Great auk was driven to extinction. As the birds became scarcer, specimen collecting became the proximate cause of their extinction, because the Great auk’s growing rarity increased interest from European museums and private collectors in obtaining skins and eggs of the bird.

Great auk enclosure in LOST ZOO

Japanese sea lion enclosure in LOST ZOO
(Click to view larger image).

Between 1833 and 1844 altogether 27 birds were hunted. On July 3, 1844 the last two confirmed specimens were killed on Eldey Island, off the coast of Iceland. There are unconfirmed later reports of individuals being seen or caught. A record of a bird in 1852 is considered to be the last sighting of the species. In 1883, altogether 74 stuffed Great auks or skins are listed in the different collections, namely 3 in the US and 71 in Europe (21 in England; 20 in Germany). Today, 78 skins of the great auk remain mostly in museum collections, along with around 75 eggs and 24 complete skeletons. All but four of the surviving skins are in summer plumage, and only two of these are immature. No hatchling specimens exist. Because the Great auk has never seen again since the mid of the 19th century we are very proud that we could obtain for our Lost Zoo one pair of this rare seabird species. In our Lost Zoo the Great auk will have a large enclosure in the new Arctic section of the park, which will be open very soon.

Executive Curator
JURGEN LANGE

Great auk

The Great auk was a flightless seabird, which lived in the cold North Atlantic and nested in extremely dense and social colonies on rocky islands off the cold North Atlantic coasts of Canada, northeastern US, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Great Britain.

Body height: 75 cm

Body weight: 5 kg

Nest & Egg: They had no nest, but laid the single egg on bare rocks. The white egg with brown marbling measured 12-13 cm in length and 7.5-8 cm across its widest point.

Habitat: Only during the breeding season the Great auks were found on the islands. For the rest of the year, they spent their time foraging for food in the waters of the cold North Atlantic.

Extinction: By over-hunting for its feathers, meat, fat and oil the Great auk was driven to extinction. When the Great auks became scarcer, the demand of European museums and private collectors to get skins and eggs of this rare species were another cause of their extinction. - In July 1844 the last two confirmed specimens were killed on an island, off the coast of Iceland. A record of a bird in 1852 is considered to be the last sighting of the species.

Animal Exhibition
greatauk