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I know what you’re thinking; this looks just like a penguin! It dives for fish, lives by the sea, wears a tuxedo — but don’t let this guy fool you! The great auk was only related to penguins in theory. That is, until science stepped in, indicating the key features that set the two species far apart.


The funny thing is, the great auk was the O.G. penguin. Long before penguins were discovered, the great auk was given the binomial name Pinguinus Impennis. Well, one day, sailors stumbled across the modern-day penguin that we’re all familiar with. They thought it so closely resembled the great auk that they named these new birds — you guessed it — penguins!

You see, true penguins can only be found in the Southern Hemisphere, predominantly in the Antarctic. In contrast, the great auk was found basking in the (slightly) warmer temperatures of the North. There’s the major difference.

Now that we have that cleared up let’s dive right into the facts. Hold your fins tight and join us back in time as we examine the great auk!

Question: What is the great auk’s closest living relative?
(Answer below)

A. Puffin
B. Little auk
C. Razorbill
D. Pigeon

Era

Bones extracted by paleontologists suggest that the great auk was present between 1000 BC to 1000 AD and between the 15th and 17th centuries. The great auk’s time on Earth ended in the 19th century when it went extinct.

Habitat

Even when the great auk was present, there was never a great abundance of them. In fact, it was quite particular about its living quarters. The great auk typically found home on small, isolated, rocky islands. Additional house-hunting criteria included: easy access to water, plentiful food, and distance to predators.

What more could a bird ask for?

Most of these islands were spread along the North Atlantic. They reached southwards between the Canadian coastlines, Ireland, Great Britain, the Faroe Islands, and Northern Spain. All the way up north near Norway, Greenland, and Iceland.

Some of the remains have even been found as far south as Florida. Scientists attribute this to one, possibly two factors: Native American trade and/or temporary cold spells, which allowed the great auk to migrate southwards.

The great auk weighed about 11 lbs. It stood at about 2.5 feet, or between 30-33 inches tall.

Sizes and Features

As the largest modern-day member of the Alcidae family, the great auk weighed about 11 lbs. It stood at about 2.5 feet, or between 30-33 inches tall. Although it was a large-sized bird, this did nothing to contribute to wing length. The great auk’s little flappers measured at just 6 inches long. As you can imagine, these were not used for flight but rather assisted in swimming.

It was a hydrodynamic bird, meaning its physical features allowed for seamless movement underwater. One major contributor to this was its enormous, webbed feet. Even the feet being located far back on the body allowed for powerful propelling through the water. However, this didn’t do the great auk any favors outside of water. Word is, the bird was a clumsy mess while waddling on land!

It sported sleek, tuxedo-like plumage and a black beak equipped with sharp hooks and a grooved surface. This birdie even had different looks for the seasons. In the summertime, it wore a white patch over each eye. During winter, the patch disappeared and was replaced by a white stripe between the eyes.

Considering these physical features, let’s look at the question from above.

What is the great auk’s closest living relative?

C. The Razorbill


The modern-day seafarer not only resembles the great auk in appearance, but it also followed a similar evolutionary and geographical path. However, the razorbill has the ability to fly. The little auk is also very closely related to the two.

Photo of two Great Auk's in the wild, perched on a rock

Behavior

Great auks were social birds, as they nested in large communities and held on to their mates for life. Females would only lay one egg at a time. Both parents took shifts incubating their egg, which was brown and marbled in color. After about 6 weeks, the chick would hatch, remaining in the nest for at least 2 weeks until it would finally venture out. Chicks depended on mom and dad to provide them food for quite some time. It took about 5 years for a chick to fully mature.

Diet

Like most sea birds, what the great auk enjoyed most was a heart-healthy serving of fish. Its go-to prey included Atlantic menhaden or capelin (in the herring family) and small crustaceans.

While hunting, the great auk would dive swiftly through the water, like a little torpedo — nabbing anything that dare cross its path. It could hold its breath for up to 15 minutes, allowing it to dive for hundreds of feet at a time.

Great Auks and Humans

The great auk’s relationship with Native Americans was a double-edged sword. Although they revered the bird as a spiritual symbol, they also hunted it. The meat was consumed while the feathers, bones, and skins were used to produce material goods.

Early European explorers also ate great auk meat in addition to using it as bait. Excavations have revealed several Archaic Maritime people buried with great auk beaks, cloaks, and skins. During the mid-16th century, its feathers were a hot commodity in Europe. This took a significant toll on the bird’s population.

Eventually, scientists caught up and set forth efforts to protect the great auk. However, the new laws were not enough to protect the bird. Fishermen killed the last pair of great auks off the shore of Iceland in 1850, putting a halt to the final breeding attempt. One last great auk sighting was confirmed in 1852, but it’s here where the bird’s story comes to an end.

Illustration of a Great Auk
a row of laid out fish, lined up and organized

Live and Learn

This is just one of those situations — you don’t know what you’ve got ´til it’s gone. This tuxedo-wearing, snazzy sea swimmer won’t be around for you or me to see. However, our world is still teeming with fascinating, unique creatures that need us to look out for them. Keep feeding your brain with the good stuff. Knowledge is the only way we can learn from humanity’s past to prevent future extinctions.

On that note, stay tuned for our next featured extinct creature!

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