Jul 3, 1844 CE: Great Auks Become Extinct

Jul 3, 1844 CE: Great Auks Become Extinct

On July 3, 1844, fishermen killed the last confirmed pair of great auks at Eldey Island, Iceland.


6 - 12


Biology, Ecology, Earth Science

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On July 3, 1844, fishermen killed the last confirmed pair of great auks (Pinguinus impennis) 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 1770s, overhunting threatened the species.

Museums and collectors took an avid interest in the great auk as its population declined, but overhunting and changes to the species' environment contributed to the species’ extinction. Museums sought to preserve and display the mounted skins of great auks, not the auks themselves.

The reason why the fishermen who killed the last breeding pair did so is disputed. One idea is the fishermen were working for a businessman who wanted to sell the specimens to collectors. Another idea is the fishermen killed the birds because the fishermen blamed them for causing a storm.

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

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National Geographic Society
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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