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Great Auk
Urlm
great auk with juvenile
Information
Range North Atlantic, ranging as far south as northern Spain through Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Ireland, and Great Britain
Scientific Classification
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Aves
Order Charadriiformes
Family Alcidae
Genus Pinguinus
Species P. impennis
Conservation Status
EXSpecies
Extinct

The Great auk, (Pinguinus impennis), was a large, flightless bird of the alcid family that became extinct in the mid-19th century. It was the only modern species in the genus Pinguinus, a group of birds that formerly included one other species of flightless giant auk from the Atlantic Ocean region. It bred on rocky, isolated islands with easy access to the ocean and a plentiful food supply, a rarity in nature that provided only a few breeding sites for the auks. When not breeding, the auks spent their time foraging in the waters of the North Atlantic, ranging as far south as northern Spain through Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Ireland, and Great Britain.

The Great Auk was 75 to 85 centimetres (30 to 33 in) tall and weighed around 5 kilograms (11 lb), making it the largest member of the alcid family. It had a black back and a white belly. The black beak was heavy and hooked with grooves on its surface. During summer, the Great Auk had a white patch over each eye. During winter, the auk lost these patches, instead developing a white band stretching between the eyes. The wings were only 15 centimetres (5.9 in) long, rendering the bird flightless. Instead, the auk was a powerful swimmer, a trait that it used in hunting. Its favourite prey were fish, including Atlantic Menhaden and Capelin, and crustaceans. Although agile in the water, it was clumsy on land. Great Auk pairs mated for life. They nested in extremely dense and social colonies, laying one egg on bare rock. The egg was white with variable brown streaking. Both parents incubated for about six weeks before their young hatched. The young auks left the nest site after two or three weeks and the parents continued to care for them.

The Great Auk was an important part of many Native American cultures which coexisted with the bird, both as a food source and as a symbolic item. Many Maritime Archaic people were buried with Great Auk bones, and one was buried covered in over 200 auk beaks, which are assumed to have been part of a cloak made of their skins. Early European explorers to the Americas used the auk as a convenient food source or as fishing bait, reducing its numbers. The bird's down was in high demand in Europe, a factor which largely eliminated the European populations by the mid-16th century. Scientists soon began to realize that the Great Auk was disappearing and it became the beneficiary of many early environmental laws, but this proved not to be enough. Its growing rarity increased interest from European museums and private collectors in obtaining skins and eggs of the bird. On 3 July 1844, the last two confirmed specimens were killed on Eldey, off the coast of Iceland, which also eliminated the last known breeding attempt. There are unconfirmed later reports of roaming individuals being seen or caught. A record of a bird in 1852 is considered by some to be the last sighting of the species. The Great Auk is mentioned in a number of novels and the scientific journal of the American Ornithologists' Union is named The Auk in honour of this bird.

Taxonomy and Evolution

Analysis of mtDNA sequences has confirmed morphological and biogeographical studies suggesting that the Razorbill is the Great Auk's closest living relative. The Great Auk was also closely related to the little auk which underwent a radically different evolution compared to Pinguinus. Due to its outward similarity to the Razorbill (apart from flightlessness and size), the Great Auk was often placed in the genus Alca, following Linnaeus.

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