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Pinguinus impennis - Great Auk (RMNH 110.104)
RMNH 110.104

Alcidae (Auks)

Great Auk Pinguinus impennis (Linnaeus, 1758)

  • RMNH 110.104: adult. Iceland?

‘Penguin of the north’
Talking about extinct birds, it is usually the picture of exotic species on tropical islands which comes to mind. However, not all birds that are extinct lived in faraway places. The Passenger Pigeon is one example, the Great Auk another.

About a thousand years ago, the Great Auk or Garefowl ranged over much of the North Atlantic, from Canada to Norway and Ireland. Not surprisingly, this flightless auk became known as the "penguin of the north", and the word "penguin" is itself derived from the Celtic name of the Great Auk. Bones dating from the Ice Ages have been found as far south as Florida and the Mediterranean. In historical times the bird also occurred in the North Sea. Excavations of a Roman settlement near Velsen, Holland, revealed a skeleton of the Great Auk.

Persecution by man was the major cause of the Garefowl's extinction. Agile as the birds were in the water, on land they were easy victims for hunters. Initially, Great Auks were hunted for their meat. From 1497 till the end of the 18th century, the once large population on Newfoundland was an important source of fresh meat for European fisherman and whalers. Later the birds were also taken for their feathers, which were used in hats. They were beaten to death and boiled in large cauldrons to loosen the plumage. The fires below these cauldrons were often fed with the oil of the birds who had already been stripped.

Before 1300, the Garefowl had already disappeared from Norway. In Newfoundland it became extinct at about 1800. The last birds on the Faroes were killed in 1808, on the Orkney Islands in 1812 and in Greenland in 1815. After that, the only remaining breeding place was the small island of Geirfuglasker (named after the Garefowl) off southwestern Iceland. Here the population had seriously declined in the early 19th century, particularly after heavy onslaughts in 1808 and 1813. Still hunting continued, now mainly for the sake of collectors. Especially in England, where natural history cabinets were quite fashionable, Great Auks were much sought after. This explains that, despite the species' rarity at the time, there are approximately 80 skins and 75 eggs in collections, as well as about ten skeletons and numerous bones.

In 1830, a submarine volcanic eruption and earthquake destroyed Geirfuglasker. The greater part of the remaining Great Auks perished during or after the disaster; and as many as 27 birds were killed by hunters in 1830 and 1831. The surviving ones settled on the nearby island of Eldey. This finally sealed their fate, since Eldey was fairly accessible to man. All specimens collected since 1830 almost certainly come from this island. The last Garefowl hunt took place on 3 June 1844, when a pair was beaten to death on Eldey; its egg was broken. Only four years earlier a bird on St Kilda had suffered a similar fate, not to suit a collector, but out of superstition: it might have been a witch!

Museum specimens
Naturalis possesses a mounted specimen and an egg. The egg, from Newfoundland, was part of the collection of C.J. Temminck. The provenance of the mounted skin is unclear. It is either the specimen which the Amsterdam dealer G.A. Frank Sr. offered to the museum for 150 guilders on 19 April 1833 or the one sent to Leiden by Professor Reinhardt of the Royal Museum in Copenhagen in 1835. In either case, it probably originates from Eldey. The label of the specimen does not indicate the sex, which is not surprising. Sigrídur Thorláksdóttir, the Icelandic woman who skinned many of the Eldey Great Auks, stated that she did not bother to determine the sex of the animals when skinning them.

Temminck or his successor Schlegel must have obtained another specimen as well. On 30 April 1860, a Great Auk was exchanged with Frank for a collection of bird and mammal skins. By that time the species had become extinct and its value had greatly increased. It was now estimated at 220 guilders. Frank later sold the Leiden specimen to the Italian count Ercole Turati. After his death the skin went to the Museum of Milan.


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