Pinguinus impennisgreat auk

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Geographic Range

The last great auk was seen in 1852 off the Newfoundland Banks. They were extinct in the western Atlantic before 1800 and persisted a bit longer in some parts of the eastern Atlantic and off the coast of Iceland. They lived and bred on scattered, offshore islands in the northern Atlantic in recorded history, although it is possible they once occurred on continental coastlines but were extirpated from those areas earlier. They were found from Canada, Greenland, and Iceland to the British Isles and Scandinavia. Colonies in the western Atlantic may have been less numerous than in the eastern Atlantic. Archeological records indicate they once occurred as far south as southern Spain and New England in the United States, Pleistocene records indicate great auks occurred as far south as Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean. Great auks became extinct before any natural history studies were conducted, so little is known about their lives except for a few studies of lone, captive birds and the casual records of mariners. (Bengston, 1984; BirdLife International 2008, 2009)

Habitat

In recorded history, great auks were found breeding only on isolated, rocky islands in the North Atlantic. They foraged in the open ocean when not breeding. (Bengston, 1984; BirdLife International 2008, 2009)

Physical Description

Great auks were large, flightless seabirds. They were similar in overall appearance to their smaller relatives in the family Alcidae, but much larger and with greatly reduced wings, reflecting their flightlessness. Great auks are widely considered the northern Atlantic ecological corollary to the Antarctic penguins. Great auks stood 70 cm tall and weighed up to 5 kg. They had black plumage dorsally, with white breasts, bellies, and undertail coverts. Their wings had a white trailing edge and there was a large white patch in front of each eye. Their bills were robust and ridged, like other alcids, and their gape was bright yellow. Their reduced wings were approximately the size of those of razorbills and were used to propel themselves underwater during dives. They are said to have been excellent swimmers, able to evade capture by people in boats. Analysis of bones from midden sites indicates that there may have been some geographical variation in morphology. (Bengston, 1984; BirdLife International 2008, 2009)

  • Average mass
    5 kg
    11.01 lb
  • Average length
    70 cm
    27.56 in

Reproduction

There are no reported of mating behaviors. Based on patterns of parental investment, great auks were monogamous and may have retained mates over many successive years. (Bengston, 1984)

Because they couldn't fly, potential breeding sites had to be accessible from the sea so that great auks could land and walk from the shore to a nesting site. They bred in dense congregations in nesting colonies but colonies seem to have relatively fewer birds than seabirds with smaller body sizes. They are thought to have bred from May through June, during a breeding window of approximately 6 to 7 weeks. However, other records indicate breeding occurring later, into August. This could represent geographic variation, re-nesting, or inaccurate observations. Females laid a single egg up to 84 by 140 mm in size. Incubation time is estimated at 44 days. Great auks may have had an exceptionally rapid hatchling development stage, fledging in as little as 9 days. This is supported by the fact that there are few or now descriptions of great auk hatchlings or hatchlings held in collections. It is possible that this rapid hatching to fledging period was followed by parental care on the water, where the family could forage and fulfill their high energy needs. Estimates suggest they may have taken 4 to 7 years to reach sexual maturity. (Bengston, 1984)

  • Breeding interval
    Great auks bred may have bred once yearly or less often, given their high energy investment in young.
  • Breeding season
    Great auks were observed breeding from May through August.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 1
  • Average time to hatching
    44 days
  • Range fledging age
    9 (low) days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    4 to 7 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    4 to 7 years

Females invested heavily in large, yolk-rich eggs and it is thought that great auks hatched at a fairly precocial state. Both parents developed brood patches, so incubated eggs and brooded their young. They probably alternated egg and hatchling tending duties, as in other seabirds. Time to fledging is estimated to be very short, but a post-fledging period of parental investment at sea is possible. (Bengston, 1984)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

As in other large seabirds, annual survival is thought to have been relatively high. Estimated lifespan was from 20 to 25 years. (Bengston, 1984)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    20 to 25 years

Behavior

Great auks are thought to have spent most of their time at sea outside of the breeding season, when they would be found at breeding colonies on isolated, rocky islands and sea stacks. They were social, foraging in small groups and breeding together in colonies. Anecdotes suggest that they may have engaged in some kinds of visual displays, including head shaking and bowing and presenting their bright yellow gapes. (Bengston, 1984)

Home Range

There are no estimates of home range size in the literature, although they are thought to have ranged widely outside of the breeding season.

Communication and Perception

Observations suggest great auks may have used visual displays in communication. Sounds are not described. (Bengston, 1984)

  • Communication Channels
  • visual

Food Habits

Great auk adults dove for fish and young birds are thought to have eaten zookplanton or smaller fish. Their morphology and flightlessness indicate they were highly specialized piscivores as adults. An analysis of the fish bones associated with great auk bones from middens indicate that they ate fish from 140 to 190 mm long, including menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus), shad (Alosa species), capelin (Mallotus villosus), 3-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus), striped sea bass (Morone saxatilis), and flatish (Pleuronectidae). Based on these evidence, some researchers have suggested that great auks fed mainly in shallow waters (up to 18 m) within 2 km of shore and chose primarily large prey (70 to 190 mm, up to 300 mm). They seem to have preferred fish with high fat content. (Bengston, 1984; BirdLife International 2008, 2009)

Predation

Great auks were preyed on by humans. Other natural predators are not known. (Bengston, 1984; BirdLife International 2008, 2009)

Ecosystem Roles

Great auks were specialized predators of larger fish in the northern Atlantic. (Bengston, 1984)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Great auk bones are common in coastal middens throughout Europe and the Mediterranean dating from 13,000 to 2,000 years before present. Great auks were intensively exploited for food and fuel by mariners in search of fresh meat. Their fat was also rendered and used as fuel. (Bengston, 1984)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no adverse effects of great auks on humans.

Conservation Status

Great auks are presumed to have become extinct in 1852, the last date that a wild bird was observed. The last known breeding pair was killed in 1844 in Iceland. Great auks, and their eggs and young, were relentlessly exploited for food and fuel. Like other flightless birds with few or no natural predators, such as dodos (Raphus cucullatus), great auks were docile and ungainly on land. They could not fly and could only walk at about the pace of a human walking. They did not exhibit fear when approached and were therefore easily captured and dispatched. Mariners raided nesting colonies and took birds and eggs by the thousands to eat fresh, render for fuel, or salt for later consumption. The last two birds killed in Iceland were preserved and are held in the Museum of Zoology in Copenhagen, Denmark. There is little doubt that they were hunted to extinction by humans, although there is a possibility that their numbers and range were declining previous to that as a result of environmental changes that reduced the number of appropriate islands for breeding and altered prey abundance. Prehistoric human hunters seem to have sustainably hunted great auks and some modern human populations imposed regulations to moderate the effect of their harvesting on populations. (Bengston, 1984; BirdLife International 2008, 2009)

Other Comments

Great auks were also known as "garefowl" and were previously known under the name Alca impennis. (Bengston, 1984)

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.

Glossary

Atlantic Ocean

the body of water between Africa, Europe, the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), and the western hemisphere. It is the second largest ocean in the world after the Pacific Ocean.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

natatorial

specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nomadic

generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pelagic

An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).

piscivore

an animal that mainly eats fish

polar

the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

visual

uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born

zooplankton

animal constituent of plankton; mainly small crustaceans and fish larvae. (Compare to phytoplankton.)

References

Bengston, S. 1984. Breeding ecology and extinction of the great auk (Pinguinus impennis): anecdotal evidence and conjectures.. The Auk, 101: 1-12.

BirdLife International 2008, 2009. "Pinguinus impennis" (On-line). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.1. Accessed July 11, 2009 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/144282/0.