STL Science Center

STL Science Center

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.

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