Great Auk

name = Great Auk
status = EX
extinct = 1852. The last specimen was sighted in Newfoundland.
status_system = iucn3.1

image_width = 200px
image_caption = Breeding (standing) and nonbreeding (swimming) plumage. By John Gerrard Keulemans.
regnum = Animalia
phylum = Chordata
classis = Aves
ordo = Charadriiformes
familia = Alcidae
genus = "Pinguinus"
genus_authority = Bonnaterre, 1791
species = "P. impennis"
binomial = "Pinguinus impennis"
binomial_authority = (Linnaeus, 1758)
synonyms ="Alca impennis"

The Great Auk, "Pinguinus impennis", formerly of the genus "Alca", is a bird that became extinct in the mid-19th century. It was the only species in the genus "Pinguinus", a group which included several flightless giant auks from the Atlantic, to survive until modern times. It was also known as "garefowl" (from the Old Norse "geirfugl", meaning "spear-bird", a reference to the shape of its beak), or "penguin" (before the birds known by that name today were so called).

The Great Auk was found in great numbers on islands off eastern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Ireland and Great Britain before being hunted to extinction. Remains found in Floridian middens suggest that, at least occasionally, the Great Auk ventured that far south in winter as recently as the 14th century. [Weigel (1958)] [Brodkorb (1960)]


The Great Auk was one of the many species originally described by Linnaeus in his 18th century work, "Systema Naturae". [Linnaeus, C (1758)]

Analysis of mtDNA sequences have confirmed morphological and biogeographical studies in regarding the Razorbill as the Great Auk's closest living relative. [Moum "et al" (2002)] They were also closely related to the Little Auk (Dovekie), which underwent a radically different evolution compared to "Pinguinus", although the entire lineage seems to have evolved in the North Atlantic. Due to its outward similarity to the razorbill (apart from flightlessness and size), the Great Auk was often placed in the genus "Alca".

However, the fossil record ("Pinguinus alfrednewtoni" from the Early Pliocene Yorktown Formation of the Lee Creek Mine, USA) and molecular evidence demonstrate that the three genera, while still closely related, diverged soon after their common ancestor (probably similar to a stout Xantus's Murrelet) had spread to the coasts of the Atlantic. By that time however, the murres, or Atlantic Guillemots had apparently already split off from the other Atlantic alcids. Razorbill-like birds were common in the Atlantic during the Pliocene, but the evolution of the Dovekie is sparsely documented.

The molecular data are compatible with either view, but the weight of evidence suggests placing the Great Auk in a distinct genus.


Standing about 75-85 cm (30-34 in) tall and weighing around 5 kg (11 lb), [Livezey (1988)] the flightless Great Auk was the largest of the auks. It had white lower- and glossy black upper feathers, with an area of white feathers on both sides of the head between the beak and each eye. The longest wing feathers were only 10 cm (3.9 in) long. The eyes had a reddish/brown iris, and the beak was black with white transverse grooves. Its feet and claws were black while the webbed skin between the toes was brown/black. Juvenile birds had less prominent grooves in their beaks and had mottled white and black necks.


Great Auks were excellent swimmers, using their wings to swim underwater. Their main food was fish, usually 12-20 cm in length, but occasionally up to half the bird's own length. Based on remains associated with Great Auk bones found on Funk Island and on ecological and morphological considerations, it seems that Atlantic menhaden and capelin were favored prey items. [Olson "et al." (1979)]

Great Auks walked slowly and sometimes used their wings to help them traverse rough terrain.Morris (1864). pp. 56–58] They had few natural predators, mainly large marine mammals and birds of prey,Fact|date=June 2008 and had no innate fear of humans. Their flightlessness and awkwardness on land compounded their vulnerability to humans, who hunted them for food, feathers, and as specimens for museums and private collections.

The Great Auk laid only one egg each year, which it incubated on bare ground until hatching in June. The eggs averaged 12.4cm (4.9in) in length, [Gaskell (2001)] and were yellowish white to light ochre with a varying pattern of black, brown or greyish spots and lines which often congregated on the large end. [cite web |url =


The Great Auk was hunted on a significant scale for food, eggs and down from at least the 8th century. Prior to that, hunting by local natives can be documented from Late Stone Age Scandinavia and Eastern North America, [Greenway (1967)] and from early 5th century Labrador where the bird only seems to have occurred as a straggler. [Jordan and Olson (1982)] A person buried at the Maritime Archaic site at Port au Choix, Newfoundland, dating to about 2000 BC, seems to have been interred clothed in a suit made from more than 200 Great Auk skins, with the heads left attached as decoration. [Tuck (1976)] The Little Ice Age may have reduced their numbers, but massive exploitation for their down drastically reduced the population. Specimens of the Great Auk and its eggs became collectible and highly prized, and collecting of the eggs contributed to the demise of the species.

On Stac an Armin, St Kilda, Scotland, in July, 1840, the last Great Auk seen in the British Isles was killed by two St Kildan residents. Haswell-Smith claims that this was because they thought it was a witch. [Haswell-Smith (1996)]

The last population lived on Geirfuglasker ("Great Auk Rock") off Iceland. This island was a volcanic rock surrounded by cliffs which made it inaccessible to humans, but in 1830 the rock submerged, and the birds moved to the nearby island Eldey which was accessible from a single side. The last pair, found incubating an egg, were killed there on 3 July 1844, with Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangling the adults and Ketill Ketilsson smashing the egg with his boot.Ellis, R (2004) p. 160] However, a later claim of a live individual sighted in 1852 on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland has been accepted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).BirdLife International (2004)]

Today, around 75 eggs of the Great Auk remain in museum collections, along with 24 complete skeletons and 81 mounted skins. While thousands of isolated bones have been collected from 19th century Funk Island to Neolithic middens, only a minute number of complete skeletons exist. [Luther (1996)]

In popular culture

The Great Auk is the mascot of Archmere Academy in Claymont, Delaware, USA; Sir Sandford Fleming college in Ontario, Canada; and the Adelaide University Choral Society (AUCS), Australia. [cite web |url = |year = 2005 |title =O’Sqweek |publisher =Adelaide University Choral Society] It is also the mascot of the Knowledge Masters educational competition.

"The Auk", the scientific journal of the American Ornithologists' Union, is named after this bird.

According to Homer Hickam's memoir "Rocket Boys" and its subsequent film production "October Sky", the early rockets he and his friends built were named "Auk" along with a sequential numeration as an obvious display of irony. The Great Auk is the subject of a novel, "The Last Great Auk" by Allen Eckert, which tells of the events leading to the extinction of the Great Auk as seen from the perspective of the last one alive.

A Great Auk (presumably stuffed) appears among the possessions of Baba the Turk in the opera "The Rake's Progress" by Igor Stravinsky.

In the novel adaptation of "The Wicker Man" by Robin Hardy & Anthony Shaffer, the (fictitious) Summerisle is revealed to be home to a surviving colony of Great Auks.

The Two Ronnies enacted a parody on BBC TV entitled "Raiders of the Lost Auk", in which an archaeologist tracks down a golden auk, pursued by Nazis.

The Great Auk is a significant factor in the children's book "The Island of Adventure" by Enid Blyton. Jack is a keen ornithologist, and believes that the mysterious Island of Gloom may host a surviving Great Auk. This belief leads the children to the island, where they don't find a Great Auk but do find adventure.

The Great Auk is also the subject of a Ballet called "Still Life at the Penguin Café".




* Database entry includes justification for why this species is listed as extinct
* Brodkorb, Pierce (1960): "Great Auk and Common Murre from a Florida Midden". "Auk" 77(3): 342-343. [ PDF fulltext]
*cite book| last = Ellis| first = Richard| authorlink = Richard Ellis (biologist) | title = No Turning Back: The Life and Death of Animal Species| publisher = Harper Perennial | date = 2004| location = New York| pages = 160| isbn =0-06-055804-0
* Fuller, Errol (1999): "The Great Auk". Abrams, New York.
* Greenway, James C., Jr. (1967): Great Auk. "In: Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World, 2nd edition": 271-291. Dover, New York. QL676.7.G7
* Haswell-Smith, Hamish (1996). "The Scottish Islands"
* Jordan, Richard H. & Olson, Storrs L. (1982): "First Record of the Great Auk ("Pinguinus impennis") from Labrador." "Auk" 99(1): 167-168. [ PDF fulltext]
*cite book | last=Linnaeus | first=C | authorlink=Carolus Linnaeus | title=Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata. | publisher=Holmiae. (Laurentii Salvii). | date=1758| language = Latin
* Livezey, Bradley C. (1988): "Morphometrics of flightlessness in the Alcidae." "Auk" 105(4): 681–698. [ PDF fulltext]
* Luther, Dieter (1996): Riesenalk. "In: Die ausgestorbenen Vögel der Welt, 4th edition (Die neue Brehm-Bücherei 424)": 78-84. Westarp-Wissenschaften, Magdeburg; Spektrum, Heidelberg. ISBN 3-89432-213-6 [in German]
* Moum, Truls; Arnason, Ulfur & Árnason, Einar (2002): "Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Evolution and Phylogeny of the Atlantic Alcidae, Including the Extinct Great Auk ("Pinguinus impennis")". "Molecular Biology and Evolution" 19(9): 1434–1439. [ PDF fulltext]
* Tuck, J. A. (1976): Ancient peoples of Port au Choix: The Excavation of an Archaic Indian Cemetery in Newfoundland. "Newfoundland Social and Economic Studies" 17.
* Weigel, Penelope Hermes (1958): Great Auk Remains from a Florida Shell Midden. "Auk" 75(2): 215–216. [ PDF fulltext]

External links

* [,9171,882308,00.html Auk Egg Auction] Time Magazine, November 26 1934.
* [ Great Auk: Audubon fact sheet]
* [ 3D view] of specimen RMNH 110.104 at Naturalis, Leiden (requires QuickTime browser plugin).

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • great auk — great′ auk′ n. orn a large flightless auk, Pinguinus impennis, of rocky islands off N Atlantic coasts: extinct since 1844 …   From formal English to slang

  • great auk — n. a large, flightless auk (Pinguinus impennis) of the N Atlantic, extinct since 1844 …   English World dictionary

  • great auk — noun large flightless auk of rocky islands off northern Atlantic coasts; extinct • Syn: ↑Pinguinus impennis • Hypernyms: ↑auk • Member Holonyms: ↑Pinguinus, ↑genus Pinguinus * * * noun …   Useful english dictionary

  • great auk — a large, flightless auk, Pinguinus impennis, of rocky islands off North Atlantic coasts: extinct since 1844. [1820 30] * * * Flightless seabird (Pinguinus impennis) extinct since 1844. Great auks bred in colonies on rocky islands off North… …   Universalium

  • great auk — noun Date: circa 1828 an extinct large flightless auk (Pinguinus impennis) formerly abundant along North Atlantic coasts …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • great auk — noun A large auk, Pinguinus impennis. Syn: garefowl …   Wiktionary

  • great auk — noun a large flightless auk of the North Atlantic, exterminated in the 19th century. [Alca impennis.] …   English new terms dictionary

  • great auk — /greɪt ˈɔk/ (say grayt awk) noun a large, flightless seabird, Pinguinus impennis, formerly abundant on the coasts of the northern Atlantic, but now extinct; garefowl …   Australian English dictionary

  • Auk — Auk, n. [Prov. E. alk; akin to Dan. alke, Icel. & Sw. alka.] (Zo[ o]l.) A name given to various species of arctic sea birds of the family {Alcid[ae]}. The great auk, now extinct, is {Alca impennis} (or {Plautus impennis}) . The razor billed auk… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • auk — /awk/, n. any of several usually black and white diving birds of the family Alcidae, of northern seas, having webbed feet and small wings. Cf. great auk, razor billed auk. [1665 75; < Scand; cf. ON alka] * * * In general, any of 22 species of… …   Universalium

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