7 Curiosities About the Great Auk

The giant auk was one of the victims of human greed. Without this, we would still be able to see the largest aquatic bird that ever lived.
7 Curiosities About the Great Auk
Sara González Juárez

Written and verified by the psychologist Sara González Juárez.

Last update: 07 November, 2022

The giant auk became extinct in 1852 due to human intervention and actions. Its sad story isn’t a new one, as it’s significantly similar to many others that our species has caused throughout history, such as the dodo.

To pay tribute to this bird and to get to know it a little better, here are some curious facts about it and its characteristics. It was a majestic, confident, and peaceful animal that should still exist on our planet. Don’t miss this article.

Curious facts about the great auk

The great auk (Pinguinus impennis) is an extinct species of caradriform bird of the Alcidae family. It’s also known as the imperial auk or great penguin. Let’s take a look at some interesting facts about it.

1. The first “penguin”

The great auk was the first bird to receive this name. The word penguin derives from the Welsh pen gwyn, meaning “white head”. This referred to the white spots on both sides of its head.

Later, with the exploration of Antarctica, explorers began to call the birds there (today’s penguins) by the same name.

2. It lived in the northern hemisphere

Unlike today’s penguins, the great auk inhabited North Atlantic regions and migrated far south after the breeding season. Remains have been found in Gibraltar and Florida, the southernmost sites discovered to date.

Its similarities to the penguins we know today are due to evolutionary convergence, as is the case with puffins (Fratercula arctica). Both developed similar characteristics following different evolutionary lines.

3. Their eggs weighed almost half a kilo

These birds were monogamous, since they used to keep the same partner all their lives. Both parents created the nest together and cared for a single egg. The egg was about 13 centimeters (5 inches) long and easily weighed 400 grams (just under a pound).

An extra curiosity is that the spots on their heads changed during the breeding season. They went from being two rounded white pigmentations to taking the shape of a band, wrapping around the head.

4. The largest penguins

The great auk was known to be the largest bird of the caradriform family. It was one meter tall (3.3 feet) and could weigh up to 5 kilograms (11 pounds) a fairly low weight but necessary to remain agile in the water.

5. The adaptations of convergent evolution

Although its beak more closely resembles that of the puffin, adaptations to aquatic life took the same path as those of penguins. Webbed feet, a white belly with a black back, and wings turned into flippers all ensured that this bird could survive in cold waters and swim in them gracefully in order to catch the fish on which it fed.

6. Its passage through prehistory

Although this bird became extinct in the 19th century, it had been on the face of the Earth since the Neogene period, 3600 million years ago. This period was characterized by the already significant differentiation of the modern mammal and bird families.

In this period, the climate was moderate and orogeny occurred in the northern hemisphere, although the Mediterranean dried out. The first large kelp forests appeared in the ocean and grasses became ubiquitous. This was also the time when the first apes appear.

7. Get to know the story behind its extinction

As a last curiosity, the history of the extinction of this species can’t be overlooked. It’s a process that continues to occur today, in addition to many other factors that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Prehistory: Being peaceful, large, flightless birds, they were a source of food for our species in prehistoric times. Remains of these birds were found in Paleolithic areas, which served as evidence.

Late 16th century: In this century, great auks had already disappeared from continental Europe. Some populations were still found in North America, but they would be the last to survive so far south.

18th century: In this period, so characterized by expeditions of naturalists seeking to find new species and catalog them, sailors stopped to stock up on great auk meat and eggs. By the end of this century, they hadn’t been seen in northern Europe for many years.

Great auk.

19th century – the great massacre: By 1800, the only great elks were left in Iceland. The constant expeditions to slaughter them had already caused their appearance from the rest of the world.

Only one remnant remained on the island of Geirfuglasker, in Iceland, where the monks of the churches charged an exorbitant price to allow hunters access. However, the fate of these birds ended in 1830, when an earthquake submerged one of the churches under water.

In the middle of the 19th century, in 1852, four explorers spotted a pair of auks in their nest. They killed them and no other specimens were ever heard of again. This is the story of many species, but there’s still time to stop it. Let’s work together to achieve this!

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  • Pinguinus impennis (great auk). (s. f.). Animal Diversity Web. Recuperado 29 de septiembre de 2022, de https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Pinguinus_impennis/
  • Bengtson, S. A. (1984). Breeding ecology and extinction of the great auk (Pinguinus impennis): anecdotal evidence and conjectures. The Auk101(1), 1-12.

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