10 Facts About the Great Auk

Meet the Penguin-Like Bird of the Northern Hemisphere

The Great Auk

John James Audubon/Rawpixel Ltd/Flickr/CC BY 4.0 

We all know about the Dodo Bird and the Passenger Pigeon, but for a large portion of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Great Auk was the world's most widely known (and most-lamented) extinct bird. On the following slides, you'll discover ten essential Great Auk facts.

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The Great Auk Looked (Superficially) Like a Penguin

Quick, what do you call a flightless, black-and-white bird that stands two and a half feet tall and weighs about a dozen pounds fully grown? While the Great Auk wasn't technically a penguin, it certainly looked like one, and in fact, it was the first bird to be loosely called a penguin (thanks to its genus name, Pinguinus). One significant difference, of course, is that true penguins are restricted to the southern hemisphere, especially the fringes of Antarctica, while the Great Auk lived along the farthest reaches of the northern Atlantic Ocean.

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The Great Auk Lived Along the Shores of the Northern Atlantic

At its peak, the Great Auk enjoyed a wide distribution—along the Atlantic coasts of western Europe, Scandinavia, North America, and Greenland—but it was never particularly plentiful. That's because this flightless bird needed ideal conditions in which to breed: rocky islands equipped with sloping shorelines that were close to the ocean, but far away from Polar Bears and other predators. For this reason, in any given year, the Great Auk population consisted of only about two dozen breeding colonies dotted across the expanse of its vast territory.

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The Great Auk Was Revered by Native Americans

Well before the first European settlers arrived in North America, Native Americans had a complicated relationship with the Great Auk, evolved throughout thousands of years. On the one hand, they revered this flightless bird, the bones, beaks, and feathers of which were used in various rituals and different kinds of ornamentation. On the other hand, Native Americans also hunted and ate the Great Auk, though presumably, their limited technology (combined with their respect for nature) kept them from driving this bird into extinction.

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Great Auks Mated for Life

Like many modern bird species—including the Bald Eagle, the Mute Swan, and the Scarlet Macaw—the Great Auk was strictly monogamous, males and females faithfully pairing up until they died. More ominously in light of its subsequent extinction, the Great Auk only laid one egg at a time, which was incubated by both parents until it hatched. European enthusiasts prized these eggs, and Great Auk colonies were decimated by overly aggressive egg collectors who didn't think about the damage they were inflicting.

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The Great Auk's Closest Living Relative is the Razorbill

The Great Auk has been extinct for close to two centuries, but its closest living relative, the Razorbill, isn't even close to being endangered—it's listed as a species of "least concern" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, meaning there are plenty of razorbills around to be admired by birdwatchers. Like the Great Auk, the Razorbill lives along the shores of the northern Atlantic ocean, and also like its more famous predecessor, it's widespread but not especially populous: there may be as few as one million breeding pairs across the entire world.

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The Great Auk Was a Powerful Swimmer

Contemporary observers all agree that Great Auks were close to useless on land, waddling slowly and clumsily on their hind legs, and occasionally flapping their stubby wings to lift themselves over steep terrain. In the water, though, these birds were as fleet and hydrodynamic as torpedoes; they could hold their breath for up to fifteen minutes, enabling dives of a couple of hundred feet in search of prey. (Of course, Great Auks were insulated from the frigid temperatures by their thick coat of feathers.)

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The Great Auk Was Referenced by James Joyce

The Great Auk, not the Dodo Bird or the Passenger Pigeon, was the doomed bird most familiar to civilized Europe at the start of the 20th century. Not only does the Great Auk briefly appear in James Joyce's classic novel Ulysses, but it's also the subject of a novel-length satire by Anatole France (Penguin Island, in which a nearsighted missionary baptizes a Great Auk colony) and a short poem by Ogden Nash, who draws a parallel between the Great Auk's extinction and the perilous state of humanity at the time.

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Great Auk Bones Have Been Discovered as Far South as Florida

The Great Auk was adapted to the frigid temperatures of the high northern hemisphere; how, then, did some fossil specimens make their way down to Florida, of all places? According to one theory, short-lasting cold spells (around 1,000 BC, 1,000 AD, and the 15th and 17th centuries) allowed the Great Auk to expand its breeding grounds southward temporarily; some bones may also have wound up in Florida as the result of active trade in artifacts among Native American tribes.

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The Great Auk Went Extinct in the Mid-19th Century

As stated in slide #3, the Great Auk was never a particularly populous bird; that, combined with its innate trust of humans and its habit of laying only one egg at a time, practically doomed it to oblivion. As it was hunted by an increasing number of Europeans for its eggs, flesh, and feathers, the Great Auk gradually dwindled in numbers, and the last known colony, off the coast of Iceland, disappeared in the mid-19th century. Apart from one unsubstantiated sighting in 1852, in Newfoundland, the Great Auk hasn't been glimpsed since.

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It May Be Possible to "De-Extinct" the Great Auk

Since the Great Auk went extinct well into historical times—and a large number of stuffed specimens are on display in various natural history museums around the world—this bird is an excellent candidate for de-extinction, which would involve recovering intact fragments of its preserved DNA and combining it with the genome of the Razorbill. Scientists, however, seem to be preoccupied with "sexier" de-extinction candidates like the Woolly Mammoth and the Tasmanian Tiger, so don't expect to visit a Great Auk at your local zoo any time soon!

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Strauss, Bob. "10 Facts About the Great Auk." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-great-auk-1093724. Strauss, Bob. (2021, September 2). 10 Facts About the Great Auk. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-great-auk-1093724 Strauss, Bob. "10 Facts About the Great Auk." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-great-auk-1093724 (accessed March 20, 2023).