A Museum Tale
The following is a textual transcription of the great auk account in the book “The Annihilation of Nature: human extinction of birds and mammals” by Ceballos et al (2015. Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore). Available at John Hopkin’s Press and Amazon.
The great auk, as its name implies, was a large bird, standing nearly 1 meter (3 feet) tall. It was flightless, in a way the Northern Hemisphere’s version of a penguin. Totally marine by nature, the species once was extremely abundant and widely distributed in the North Atlantic from Canada and the United States to northern Europe. Great auks were used as a source of food and as fishing bait by European explorers. The birds’ eggs and fluffy down were highly prized in Europe, a fatal attraction that launched the auks’ slide toward extinction. Judging from contemporary reports, the auks were very easy to kill. In a single year, tens of thousands were harvested, and the populations in Europe were completely wiped out as early as the mid-sixteenth century. As European exploration and exploitation of the world spread, the North American auk populations began to fall decade by decade. By the 1800s the great auks had become very rare.
Then a natural catastrophe further spurred its downfall. In 1830 an auk breeding site on an island off Iceland was destroyed in a volcanic eruption. The eruption hastened the end, but the great auk was already fading due to the relentless hunting by humans. Naturalists seeking eggs and skins for European museums and private collectors destroyed the last surviving group of auks in the 1840s. Perhaps the last of its kind, a single bird was reportedly spotted in 1852. No credible sighting occurred thereafter.
Great auks were found on the North Atlantic coasts from Canada, Iceland and Greenland. Fossil remains have been found in Florida, Spain and Italy. The last population was found in Iceland.
It became extinct due to overexploitation by humans. However, it is possible that its populations also declined by environmental changes that decreased food availability and nesting spaces. These birds were sought after by collectors of specimens and eggs to fulfill the demand of museums and private collections.