STL Science Center

STL Science Center

23 August 2016

Naturalists Missed It

There are countless mentions of Great Auks in historical accounts of the peoples of the northern Atlantic, but there is also specific mention of the fact that there are no accounts recorded by known naturalists. This fact is made evident in Bengston's 1984 article on anecdotes and conjectures that had been passed down over the ages about the large seabird. The extinction of the bird has not stopped research into the animal, its life history, or its genetic makeup. In fact, mitochondrial DNA has been explored and sequenced for the entire Alcid family specifically including Pinguinus impennis. Archaeological comparisons of nesting sites of the Great Auk and Gannets have been compared to ascertain how one group survived and the other went extinct. Though not an exact science, the comparison is logical and well thought out.

22 August 2016

Another Episode

Last week I shared an episode of an older show called Extinct that focused on the dodo. This week we have another episode of that show that focuses on the Great Auk. Like last week, the show features reenactments of the circumstances surrounding the extinction of the relatively large waterfowl.
The Great Auk by MistyIsland1

The movie is of high quality given the age of the film. Enjoy this movie for what it is worth and the story it tells, regardless of its age and production.

21 August 2016

Auks and Science

For a day of facts here is a video that summarizes some of the extinction causes of the Great Auk.
Emma Caton does a fairly good amount of homework prior to posting videos. These make her videos informative and she is thorough, which make sharing this one completely worth not posting all kinds of links in its place. I have a lot of respect for highly thorough zoologist/biologist types that post educational videos and materials as there are many less helpful science articles and videos online that people tend to see first when searching the internet. Regardless, enjoy this video and also check out this article on some scientists from the U.K. and their attempts to reconstitute and reintroduce the Great Auk to he wild.

20 August 2016

Staying Grounded

Kelvingrove, Glasgow display
Photo by Mike Pennington
There are many extinct birds that we do not know about. Covering the extinct birds that we do know about is important though because we can learn a lot about how people treated animals in the past, and how we continue to treat some of these extant animals. Last week's discussion of the dodo inspires this week's discussion of Pinguinus impennis, the Great Auk. Alcid birds (razorbills, auks, and guillemots) look like their extinct sister taxon, but the Great Auk was a large bird. Weighing in around 5 kg (11 lbs) and measuring up to 85 cm (33 in), Pinguinus filled similar roles in the northern hemisphere as penguins do in the southern hemisphere. The Great Auk was approximately three quarters the size of the extant Emperor Penguin but the penguin weighs almost 9 times more than the auk. This may have been part of the reason that these birds were most often noted in shallower waters than its closest relatives. The bird did venture into the deeper waters of the north Atlantic also, but was noted to traverse the northern seas between its known breeding grounds. In a travesty of human interactions, the last breeding ground of the Great Auk turned out to be the perfect place to kill off the species; all of the auks breeding on the sheer cliff of an island of Eldey were slowly killed and harvested by museums and private collectors eager to have their own skins or taxidermied auks. The last pair living on the island were killed to be stuffed, the last egg of the Great Auks was willfully smashed by the collectors.

19 August 2016

The Museum's Art

©Roelant Savery
Known as "Edwards' Dodo", this painting was given to the British Museum in 1759 and now rests in the collections of the Natural History Museum in London. The painting was created by the Dutch artist Roelant Savery in the 1620's. The painting made it's way from the collections of Sir Hans Sloane to the eminent ornithologist and so-called "Father of British Ornithology" George Edwards. Edwards traveled Europe drawing and engraving birds while at the same time publishing a number of books and "natural" essays concerning the birds of Europe. Edwards not only enjoyed creating art, but collected works like this wonderfully life-like dodo. Important to note in this painting is that Savery ignored some of the contemporary accounts and painted what he saw as the best representation of the dodo. He painted at least nine other dodos, but the Edwards' Dodo became his best known work and set the standard for all subsequent dodo artwork. This answers a question about where that body shape originated that was posted yesterday. Unfortunately four of the birds in this painting are thought to represent now extinct taxa: Lesser Antillean Macaw (left) and Martinique Macaw (upper right) and the Red Rail (bottom right).

18 August 2016

No Dodos

Ustad Mansur; Dodo and Indian birds
There are no complete specimens of Raphus cucullatus. Every interpretation, museum or otherwise, is based off of the specimens originally brought back to their locations or written descriptions. The partial dodo shared yesterday is one of the better remaining taxidermy specimens of Raphus cucullatus. The shape we typically see or give to dodos is implied from contemporary accounts and illustrations. Illustrations are more powerful than simple description often as they make a lasting impression. The fat content, we saw Tuesday, of the dodo body has been called into question. Is the pudgy body of the dodo in illustrations an artifact of dense feathering or postmortem bloating? Dutch accounts noted that the bird was easy to chew but dry and tough, with a pleasant flavor and ample meat. There is little mention of a great deal of fat, a single 1631 journal entry as far as I have found, being cut from the animal prior to cooking. This is explained by the idea that during the wet season when foods were abundant dodos may have gorged themselves in order to build a fat reserve to survive the dry season's lack of food. Sailing ships traveling ahead of the wet season may have been quickly pushed along, missing the island or not requiring the stop because of their quick travel. At the end of the wet season stopping at Mauritius may have been beneficial as a respite from storms and to stock up on provisions. Whether these scenarios are true or not, the abundant illustrations showing fattened dodos were probably the result of seeing these animals as they prepared to survive times with little to no food.

17 August 2016

Famous Dodos

Dodos that were brought back to Europe and Asia this is less likely, but there are accounts of this having happened) often ended up being taxidermied when they died. Those animals then made their ways to museums and many of the exhibited dodos are still on display in the oldest museums. The dodo would be a famous animal even without these displays however. Part of the reason for that is that they are one of the first species that was accepted as being extinct after Georges Cuvier provided evidence that extinction was a possibility; until that time extinction was considered an impossible act of God. Today we know and accept that the dodo is extinct. We have used the dodo as a stupid character in many cartoons and literary references. The dodo has also come to be a symbol of awareness for extinction and animal rights stories. The Dodo (proper name) is an internet repository of animal interest stories, videos, and blogs about animals in the news and stories that raise awareness about the plight of animals; there are good stories stored there also. Here Raphus cucullatus is treated as a reminder that we need to be cognizant of how animals are influenced and influencing our lives. The name dodo has also appeared in music services, free giveaways, jewelry, electronics, and magazines. Raphus cucullatus is a very famous bird. We could write and compile the links everywhere for dodos, but I think we have done enough for today!