June 3 — Great Auk Went Extinct (1844)

On June 3, 1844, the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) became extinct when fishermen chased down two birds on an Icelandic island and killed them to sell to a collector.  This is a rare occasion when the exact date of a species extinction is known—or is it?

The Great Auk, as drawn by John James Audubon

            The Great Auk was a penguin-like flightless bird that lived in the northern Atlantic.  As the name implies, these were large birds, standing as high as 30 inches and weighing a bit over 10 pounds.  They were excellent swimmers and divers, foraging for fish and invertebrates in the sea.  Because they could not fly (their wings were only 6 inches long), they had to nest in dense colonies easily accessible from the sea by walking or climbing. 

            Great Auks were hunted from earliest times.  Archeological digs have found Great Auk bones in sites throughout the northern Atlantic rim, from England around to as far south as Florida.  In historic times, colonies were known only from isolated islands in the far north, probably because more southerly populations had been hunted to extinction long ago.  Because they could not fly and were clumsy on land, sailors and fishermen found them a ready source of fresh meat.  Feathers were also used for decoration.

A preserved speciment of a Great Auk, in Glasgow, Scotland (photo by amanderson2)

            As populations declined, collectors became the biggest enemy of the Great Auk’s continued existence.  The final two specimens ever collected were pursued and killed by a small group of fishermen on Eldey Island, a seven-acre rock located off the southwestern coast of Iceland.  Although sightings of live birds were reported at various times over the next decade or so, none were verified.  Consequently, the killing of these two birds is considered the official extinction of the species.

            But exactly when did it happen?  Modern websites list a variety of dates, sometimes mixing up June and July of 1844.  But older sources confirm that the probable date of extinction was between the 2nd and 5th of June, 1844.  I have chosen June 3, based on the testimony of Alfred Newton, an early professor of zoology at Cambridge University and an expert on the Great Auk who interviewed the collectors some years after their return.  But, as other observers have said, sailors are not particularly good with dates—so, you pick!

References:

Animal Diversity Web.  Pinguinus impennis great auk.  University of Michigan, Museum of Zoology.  Available at:  http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Pinguinus_impennis/. Accessed July 12, 2017.

Birkhead, Tim.  1994.  How collectors killed:  One hundred and fifty years ago next week the last two great auks ever seen were killed at the breeding colony on a tiny island off the coast of Iceland.  New Scientist, 28 May 1994. Available at:  https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg14219273-900/. Accessed July 12, 2017.

Galasso, Samantha.  2014.  When the Last of the Great Auks Died, It Was by the Crush of a Fisherman’s Boot.  Smithsonian.com, July 10, 2014.  Available at:  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/with-crush-fisherman-boot-the-last-great-auks-died-180951982/. Accessed July 12, 2017.

Gaskell, Jeremy.  2000.  Who Killed the Great Auk?  Oxford University Press, Oxford.  227 pages.