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.
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management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.
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process of complete disappearance of a species from Earth.
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