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The great auk (Pinguinus impennis) was a type of flightless seabird, once common in North Atlantic coastal waters. They became extinct by the mid-19th century and they were migratory and social pelagic birds. They belonged to the Alcidae family of the order Charadriiformes. It is claimed that they could dive as deep as 3,300 ft (1,006 m). They were excellent swimmers and foraged together in flocks to feed on fish. These large Alcidae members had reduced wings and, unlike their family members, could not fly either in the sky or underwater.
These diurnal, semiaquatic birds, like most Nordic animals, had a thick fat layer to protect them in their severely cold habitats. Polar bears were their natural predators and preyed on their nesting colonies. Humans hunted them for food, fishing bait, and down feathers and collected their specimens and eggs for museums and private collections. These birds were also used as a valuable source of food and clothing for humans. These precocial birds are believed to have been monogamous and laid only a single egg. Penguins, discovered much later, are named after great auks due to their physical resemblance.
A great auk was a type of flightless bird that is now extinct.
Great auks belonged to the class Aves.
As of now, there are no birds left of this species. The last confirmed record of the specimen was in 1844.
According to records, they lived on scattered, offshore, rocky islands in the northern Atlantic. They used isolated islands in the ocean for breeding colonies. Their nesting colonies were found in Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the British Isles, Scandinavia, the US, Norway, Ireland, Great Britain, and France. Some records suggest that great auks were found as far south as Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean.
These semiaquatic birds preferred rocks and ice in the intertidal zone of temperate and polar regions. They were found in the coastal waters of the North Atlantic. They used to forage in the open ocean.
They were social birds, just like Snares penguins. They foraged in small groups and bred together in colonies on isolated rocky breeding islands.
Great auks are believed to have had an approximate lifespan of 20-25 years.
Since great auks became extinct before any studies were conducted on their reproduction, there is no knowledge about their mating behaviors. They are believed to be monogamous. Since they were flightless, their breeding sites would have been near the sea, preferably on isolated rocky islands.
The possible age for attaining sexual maturity is estimated to be between four to seven years. Their breeding season is considered to have been between May and August. Only one egg was laid and it was incubated by both parents in turns for an estimated period of 44 days. The nestling might fledge in nine days.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), these birds are listed under the status Extinct. The last two confirmed birds of this species were killed in June 1844 in Eldey Island. Even though there have been claims of sightings, they are all unconfirmed.
Great auks had small heads and large, long, and curved bills with deep white grooves. Their mouths were yellow. Male and female great auks had similar plumage. Their dorsal part was glossy black and they had white bellies. Despite being large in overall size, they had short necks, legs, and wings. During winter, they used to molt and lose the wide white eye patch they developed during summer. The white patch was replaced by a white band and a gray line of feathers. In winter, their blackish-brown throat turned white as well.
*Please note this is an image of a puffin, not a great auk. If you have an image of a great auk please let us know at [email protected]
Little is known about these rather plain-looking birds of the North Atlantic. They were very social and may have been a cute seabird species, like royal penguins.
Not much information is available about their means of communication. Low croaking and a hoarse scream were known to have been made by great auks. A gurgling noise was observed to be made by a captive great auk, probably when it was anxious. The vocalizations of great auks are believed to be similar to those of the razor-billed auk, though the former might have been louder and deeper. Other means of communication might have been through visual displays, as some observations point out.
With a mass of 11-17.6 lb (5-8 kg) and approximately 29.5-33.5 in (75-85 cm) tall, they were the largest species of their family to survive into the modern era. They were also the second-largest member of the Alcidae family. They would have been about twice the size of a razor-billed auk, their nearest living relative.
Great auks were flightless birds. Their wings were only 6 in (15.2 cm) long and therefore could not be used for flight. However, they were excellent swimmers.
An average great auk bird weighed around 11-17.6 lb (5-8 kg).
There are no distinct names for males and females. A bird of this species, whether male or female, was commonly known as a great auk (Pinguinus impennis).
A young baby great auk, in general, can be referred to as a chick, nestling, or fledgling.
Great auks are typically known for feeding in shoaling waters. Since they were flightless seabirds, they might have been highly specialized piscivores. They are believed to have foraged together in flocks.
They used to feed mainly on fish usually. Young birds are believed to have consumed zooplankton or smaller fish fed to them by their parents. The great auk bones found on Funk Island suggest that the Atlantic menhaden and capelin might have been their favored prey. Their other potential prey were lumpsuckers, shorthorn sculpins, striped sea bass, cod, shad, sand lance, flatfish, and crustaceans.
They were not dangerous and they posed no threat to human beings. Rather, they were exploited by humans for fresh meat.
They are not suitable for being pets as they are wild animals.
The last known great auks were killed by two fishermen Jon Brandsson and Sigurdur Isleifsson. The last egg was stamped on by a fisherman named Ketill Ketilsson.
Even though some natural factors contributed to a gradual decrease in numbers of the great auks, human beings are the major cause for wiping out their population.
After the Medieval Warm Period, the Little Ice Age is believed to have had a slight impact on the declining population of the great auk as it exposed them to polar bears that preyed on them. However, the prime reason for their extinction is the impact of hunting by human beings. They were hunted in a large number since the Late Stone Age in Scandinavia and eastern North America.
The European population was almost eliminated by the mid-16th century as they were hunted for their feathers. In 1553, they were officially given protection under the law. In North America, great auks were hunted for food, fishing bait, and oil. As they became a rare species, some Europeans started collecting them and their eggs. In Britain, the last great auk was killed in 1840.
The great auk became extinct entirely when the last pair was hunted down by fishermen on the shores of Eldey Island, off the coast of Iceland. The mates, incubating the egg, were attacked and killed while they tried to escape. One of the last known eggs was crushed with a fisherman's boot while catching the last great auk pair. Since then, there have been some claims of their sightings. The last sighting accepted by the IUCN was on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in 1852.
Discussions are ongoing, and possibilities are being weighed up about the recreation of the great auk using its DNA from specimens that have been collected and preserved. However, this possibility is controversial. Advancements in genetic technology might be able to give us a chance to bring back this species of bird to struggling ecosystems and undo some of the damage done to their conservation in the past.
Yet many critics and conservationists believe that this may have a negative impact on the environment today and think that we should focus on putting our efforts into the protection of still-living species. Additionally, since humans are the reason for the extinction of great auks, there is no guarantee that they will not become extinct once again after their de-extinction.
Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly animal facts for everyone to discover! Learn more about some other birds from our erect crested penguin facts and purple sandpiper facts pages.
You can even occupy yourself at home by coloring in one of our free printable great Auk coloring pages.
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