The Great Auk – the original penguin

Skeleton of a Great Auk

Skeleton of a Great Auk

If you visit the new House of Bones exhibition at the Museum can see, amongst all the skeletons, a middle-sized bird sitting upright on a pedestal. At first glance it looks like a penguin. Which is true and false – it’s the original penguin, the Great Auk.

Today, what we call penguins only live south of the equator. But in the North Atlantic, “penguin” (from the Latin pinguis, or fat) originally referred to this huge flightless seabird which nested in large breeding colonies on offshore islands near Scotland, Iceland, and Newfoundland. When explorers first visited the southern oceans, the flightless seabirds there looked so similar they called them penguins as well.

 

 

Lithograph of Great Auk from John Gould’s 1837 publication The Birds of Europe. Eleven years later the bird was extinct

Lithograph of Great Auk from John Gould’s 1837 publication The Birds of Europe. Eleven years later the bird was extinct

Great Auks had no fear of humans, and so were easy pickings for hungry sailors. Slaughtered in their thousands for flesh, fat, feathers, and eggs, not much thought was given to their conservation. In prehistoric times they’d lived on the Atlantic coasts of Europe and Canada. Rare in the 18th century, by 1838 ornithologists were warning they were in danger of extinction. By the 1840s Great Auks could be found on just one island, off the coast of Iceland. Three specimen hunters went there in 1844, and located the last nesting pair. Two men strangled the parents, and the third, perhaps wanting to do the job throroughly, smashed their egg with his boot. That was the end of the line for the species, though a single lonely bird was sighted in the North Atlantic in 1852. Today, all we have left are some eggs, skins, and 24 mounted skeletons, one of which is in Whanganui.

Detail from skeleton of a Great Auk

Detail from skeleton of a Great Auk

When I was doing my PhD research in the USA, I visited Harvard’s famous Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachussetts, and was surprised to see a moa skeleton on display. How did it get there? It turns out it came from Whanganui. The town had a treasure-trove of moa bones nearby, and the Museum in its early days was keen to acquire specimens from around the world, so traded one of its extra moa with Harvard, one extinct bird for another. So the skeleton in House of Bones is one of the few old-school penguins in the Southern Hemisphere.

Mike Dickison is the Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum

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