Great Auk: The Extinct Penguin-like Bird That Was Not Actually Related to Penguins

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

In July 1844, the last breeding pair of the great auk, which was a flightless bird native to the Atlantic Islands, was killed by three fishermen. Less than a century before that, the last dodo bird on Earth was killed on the Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

If it were not for us, these two bird species would probably be alive and thriving now, as they lived and thrived on Earth for millions of years before that.

One thing that characterises our planet and sets it apart from the other known planets is the abundance of life and the availability of survival conditions.

It is estimated that around 8.7 million species are currently living on Earth. However, only 1.7 million of them are named and known to us, while the rest are still a complete mystery. However, as the search is ongoing, around 13,000 new species are discovered, studied, and named every year.

Though this 8.7 million extant species estimation does sound surprisingly large, it is even more surprising to know that it is just the remaining of the 5 billion species that appeared on Earth ever since it was formed 4.5 billion years ago.

In other words, only 0.174% of the total earthly species are alive, while as much as 99.8% of them are now extinct.

So yes, that many species already disappeared. And that contradicts the common belief that extinct species are just a few compared to the existing ones. Well, only those that we know about, the famous ones like dinosaurs and mammoths, are a few. Yet, there are literally millions of other extinct species we know nothing about.

Previously on our website, we explored some of those known as well as other not-very-famous extinct animals. In a set of three articles, we studied the mammoth, the smilodon, and the ground sloth, which lived during the ice age and disappeared thousands of years ago.

In addition, we discussed the dodo bird, which, unfortunately, was eradicated by humans in the mid-17th century.

Still on our journey exploring extinct animals, in today’s article, we will look into the life and the extinction of another flightless bird, the great auk, which, too, was pushed to extinction by us.

So let’s hop into it.


The taxonomy hierarchy is used to classify organisms and consists of eight levels. The broadest level is the domain which includes all types of organisms, and the narrowest one is the species which refers to a single organism. The rank right above the species is the genus, and the genus is preceded by the family. So species, genus, and family.

Auk, scientifically known as Alcidae, is a bird family that is further classified into 11 genera (plural of genus). Those 11 genera include a total of 25 species, also known as auks or nicknamed penguins of the north—If you recall from our article on penguins, they are native to the southernmost frozen continent of Antarctica.

Based on their fossil records, auks appeared on Earth at least 35 million years ago. While many of them are still alive and thriving, the great auk, the one we are concerned about today, did go extinct in the mid-19th century. And we take all the blame for its extinction.

Out of the 25 auk species, only the great auk could not fly. Well, it actually did not need to, and we will see why later.

This great auk belonged to a genus called Pinguinus. Yet, according to scientists, it is not related to penguins. This is quite confusing for the great auk did resemble the penguin in many ways.

First of all, the great auk was flightless like the penguin and happened to be a perfect swimmer, too, with the wings evolving and reshaping to enable it to swim and dive. It survived in a freezing environment and had the same upright position, looking super funnily awkward when walking. In addition, the great auk had the same tuxedo plumage.

Both nominal birds also shared the same lifestyle. They used to live by the shore and in the water most of the year and only joined colonies during the breeding season.

Despite all that, scientists, for some reason, insist both flightless birds are not related. Why, then, were both of them given the same name? Well, nobody knows.

The great auk

Like many others of its relatives, as well as the penguin to which it is not related, the great auk was a seabird, mainly feeding on fish.

The great auk barely lived on land and spent most of its life in the North Atlantic Ocean, precisely the waters along the coasts of the northeastern United States, Canada, Norway, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, and France, as well as Great Britain and the Iberian Peninsula in Spain. Only during the breeding season did the great auk move to rocky islands in the Atlantic Ocean.


Speaking of appearance, the great auk was quite attractive. The information we are about to demonstrate was obtained from examining the specimens, fossils, and remains of the great auk as well as the written observations of those who encountered it.

The great auk stood for 75 cm to 85 cm and weighed 5 kg. Scientists believe that males and females were different in size, but nothing else could tell them apart. Both were characterised by their large, heavy, grooved beaks that measured 11 cm and curved downward.

Thanks to their short wings that only measured 15 cm at maximum, their short legs that were more to the back of their bodies, and their duck-like feet, great auks were powerful swimmers and excellent divers.

These large flightless birds were also distinct by their tuxedo plumage. The entire body was covered with thick, long feathers to protect the bird against the cold weather. The head, apart from a large white spot, neck, and entire back were black, while the belly and underparts were white.

Like many other birds, great auks used to moult during winter. This was when the bird lost most of its long feathers and started to grow new ones. 


According to scientists, great auks are probably mated for life. That means every couple stayed together for the rest of their lives. During the breeding season, which usually started in May, all mature great auks would join a breeding colony on one of the Atlantic Islands.

Great auks were mature enough to mate and start a family at the age of four to seven years old. They used to breed each year unless food was scarce, for the mother would not be able to lay eggs.

Interestingly, when two great auks mated for the first time, they behaved in a way that told their partner-to-be they were interested in them. For instance, they used to walk elegantly, lifting their heads to display their beautiful white patches.

Once a pair were attracted to one another, they started building their nest, usually on cliffs. These birds were never solitary as most colonies were full of couples. Some were even overcrowded, leaving very little space for other birds living on the island.

A female great auk would lay only one egg per year, usually in early June, after a month of mating. If the pair lost their egg for some reason, they would mate again and lay another egg in the same breeding season.

A great auk egg was large, about 12.4 cm long and 7.6 cm wide, and had an oval shape. It had a beige colour with different dark brown patterns and grey spots that were unique for each egg. Surprisingly, parents could recognise those brown patterns and therefore identify their eggs.

Male and female great auks took turns incubating their eggs. Like the penguins, they used to do that in an upright position instead of lying down like most other birds. Incubation typically lasted for a maximum of 44 days, after which the eggs would hatch, usually in late June or by early July at the maximum.

Feeding and taking care of the chicks was also a shared responsibility between the parents. That said, chicks only took about two to three weeks to exchange the fine hair they had at birth for the distinct adult thick feathers, a process known as pledging.

After this three-week period, chicks would be strong enough to leave the nest. Parents would gradually introduce them to the water by carrying them on their backs while swimming. They would still take care of them until the chicks were physically capable of swimming on their own.


As seabirds, great auks fed on fish. To find food, they used to dive to a maximum depth of 75 m, thanks to their incredible ability to hold their breath for 15 minutes as well as their heavy bones, which could bear the water pressure.

Great auks usually foraged in flocks. They targeted shallow waters that were not used by other seabirds. They also chose areas where many shoals of fish were swimming together.

Such fish ranged widely in size, some of which were up to 20 cm long and weighed 50 grams. Other fish types measured even larger than that. According to scientists, great auks fed on a variety of fish, including cod and sand lance.


Having no ability to fly, the great auk was entirely defenceless.

At some point in time, the population of the great auk in the North Atlantic colonies was estimated in the millions. The bird that survived on Earth for millions of years disappeared in 1844 when the last pair, the last two individuals of millions, were killed in Iceland by three fishermen.

So how exactly did this happen?

As we have mentioned, the great auk lived around the coastlines of Greenland, Iceland, Norway, the USA, Canada, the Faroe Islands, Ireland, Great Britain, and Spain. In these coastal communities and for thousands of years, the locals used to hunt the great auk for food. They used to eat its meat or use it as fishing bait.

Furthermore, they traded in the bird’s eggs, feathers, and even fat. In Europe, for instance, there was a high demand for the great auk’s fine feathers that were under the tough feathers on the surface.

In North American communities, the great auk was culturally significant for the locals. They used to bury their dead with great auk bones and beaks. They also used their bones to make necklaces.

In Newfoundland in Canada, the great auk eggs were used to make pudding. They also used the feathers, known as down, to make stuffed pillows!

As a result, humans used to hunt the great auk. Yet, such a practice turned feverishly excessive starting in the eighth century and extended for centuries. And given that the great auk only laid a single egg per year, breeding could not keep up with the hunting. As a result, the bird’s numbers started declining dramatically.

Besides hunting, the explorers who attacked the great auk’s colonies also brought rats with them, which wreaked havoc on the islands, destroyed the birds’ nests, and cracked their eggs.

By the 1550s, approximately all the great auks on the islands along the European Atlantic coastline were killed for their features. It was not until the late 18th century when Great Britain desperately tried to protect the poor bird from extinction by prohibiting the killing of great auks for feathers or eggs!

However, such an attempt did not help much, for killing the bird to use its flesh as fishing bait was still permitted. Hunting of the great auk was indeed reduced, but it was not stopped. That said, the great auk was still killed for its feathers in North America.

Around the early 19th century, it was pretty clear that the great auk was being pushed over the verge of extinction. And instead of governments making efforts to breed it and increase its numbers, another bizarre practice came to the surface.

As the great auk was becoming rare, many wealthy Europeans suddenly became highly interested in great auk specimens and their eggs—these were mummified great auks that people liked to keep at their homes or natural museums.

So those rich Europeans set prizes for anyone who could provide them with great auk specimens. Having gone crazy over money, many people started frequenting the great auk’s breeding islands to hunt them and steal their eggs. The last great auk in Scotland was killed in July 1840.

In Iceland, a breeding colony of great auks was discovered in 1835, and suddenly natural museums started demanding great auk specimens to display them. Consequently, they started collecting the birds from the island. The last great auk pair on this island was killed in July 1844. 

When the great auk officially went extinct, another high interest in the bird’s specimens, bones, eggs, and even its internal organs rose. And those who already possessed any of that started selling them at super high prices. The most expensive great auk specimen ever sold, documented by the Guinness World Records, was bought by the Icelandic Museum of Natural History at £9,000. 

Now that the great auk has been eradicated, it is said that natural museums have a total of only 78 mummified specimens, 76 of those are of adults, and only two were immature, in addition to 24 complete skeletons, 75 eggs, as well as a few thousands of bones. 

Fifteen out of the 78 specimens are now found in Great Britain, while the rest are scattered around many European countries. That said, there probably are many other specimens owned by rich people and collectors, but no one knows much about them. 


And here we get to the end of today’s lesson in which we told the story of another distinct yet, sadly extinct bird, the great auk.

In this article, we first discussed the lineage of the great auk. Descending from a family of 25 species, the great auk could not fly and had so much in common with penguins but was not related to them.

Then we explored what the great auk looked like as well as its breeding behaviour. We learned that couples stayed together for life and shared the responsibility of bringing up their chicks. We also learned a little about the great auk’s feeding habits and the types of fish it preferred.

Finally, we looked into how the great auk was forced to go extinct. Because of excessive hunting throughout 10 countries for food, feathers, and eggs, the numbers of the great auk dropped from several million to zero, with the last breeding pair killed in 1844.

We hope you found this article useful as much as we loved writing it for you. You can still learn more about many extinct and many more extant animals on our website, so make you explore its different sections.

And until another episode, keep learning.

If you enjoyed learning about this facinating animal why not check out more fantastic facts about other animals: Koalas, Land Animals, Sharks, Raccoons, Moon and Sun Bears, Rats, Chickens, Cats, Pandas, Monkeys and Whales.

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