Despite their superficial similarities, great auks like these were not closely related to penguins. Great auks were native to the Arctic and sub-Arctic, and became extinct in 1844.

Illustration by John James Audubon
  • On July 3, 1844, fishermen killed the last confirmed pair of great auks at Eldey Island, Iceland. The great auk, was a large flightless bird native to the North Atlantic. It once had a population in the millions. For centuries, the penguin-like birds were popular as meat and bait. Their fat, eggs, and feathers were sold as commercial goods. By the 19th century, overhunting threatened the species.

    Museums and collectors took an avid interest in the great auk as its population declined, but these early conservation efforts actually contributed to the species’ extinction. Museums sought to preserve and display the mounted skins of great auks, not the auks themselves. The fishermen who killed the last breeding pair were working for a businessman who wanted to sell the specimens to collectors.

    Today, the peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Ornithologists Union is named The Auk in honor of the bird and as a reminder of misguided scientific efforts.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    academic Adjective

    person or thing having to do with school, particularly college or university education.

    avid Adjective


    bait Noun

    object used to attract something.

    breed Verb

    to produce offspring.

    commercial Adjective

    having to do with the buying and selling of goods and services.

    confirm Verb

    to establish the truth or accuracy of a statement.

    conservation Noun

    management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

    Encyclopedic Entry: conservation
    decline Verb

    to reduce or go down in number.

    display Verb

    to show or reveal.

    extinction Noun

    process of complete disappearance of a species from Earth.

    mount Verb

    to climb up or get on top of.

    population Noun

    total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

    preserve Verb

    to maintain and keep safe from damage.

    specimen Noun

    individual organism that is a typical example of its classification.