Great Auks – Extinct Animals

Great Auk Fossil The great auk was a species of large flightless birds that resembled penguins and became extinct in the mid-1800s. Despite resembling penguins and carrying the name Pinguinis impennis, great auks actually were not closely related to their Southern hemisphere lookalikes. Great auks stood a foot and a half tall, weighed approximately 10 pounds fully grown, and had glossy black and white plumage with short legs and webbed feet. It is not known what the full range of auk vocalizations sounded like but it was known to make croaking and gurgling sounds.

Auks lived in the North Atlantic, in a range from Spain to Norway. They breed on rocky islands on the coasts of Canada, Iceland, the United Kingdom, and others. The great auk ate fish and was a strong swimmer. They could hold their breath for up to 15 minutes and dive down to 250 feet. Auk chicks could have possibly eaten plankton in addition to the regurgitated food that their parents provided.

Their nests were built on craggy islands and in large flocks. It is possible that they were monogamous but there is no way to know for sure. A female laid one or two eggs a year: one if it hatched, two if the first one didn’t survive. The eggs had distinctive streaks and it is possible that their pattern allowed a mother to recognize her egg among others. Chicks didn’t have the distinctive black and white plumage of their parents but instead had downy grey feathers. Auk chicks remained in the nest after hatching for only a few weeks but their parents continued to care for them even afterward. It is reported that the parents would carry their young on their back while swimming.


Lesser Auk Skull
Lesser Auk Fossil

Auks held great cultural significance to the people who lived along the coast of Canada. This network of peoples is known as the Maritime Archaic and they were frequently buried with the bones of great auks, as well as clothing and jewelry made from their bones and skins. When Europeans came to North America, they used the auk as a food source and began to covet auk feathers for bedding. This tragically reduced their numbers so drastically that by the 17th century, European populations of auks were virtually extinct and American populations were teetering. Their rarity enticed collectors, who then killed auks for their skins and feathers and stole their eggs. While scientists began to realize that the auks were disappearing and made efforts to raise awareness, they weren’t able to save the auks from extinction. The last auk sighting was in 1852.


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