Remains of great auk found at English south coast

Great auks

From The Independent daily in Britain:

Remains of ‘first penguin’ unearthed on south coast

By Lesley Richardson

Published: 31 August 2007

Rare remains of an extinct flightless bird, once called the original penguin, have been unearthed at an archaeological dig on Britain’s south coast.

The great auk was killed for food and eggs and later for its feathers when they became fashion accessories. Large breeding colonies used to gather on rocky islands off eastern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Ireland and Great Britain until they were hunted to extinction.

The last known breeding pair of great auks was killed by hunters on Eldey island, off Iceland in 1844. It was the first bird to be given the name penguin, and when British sailors saw similar flightless birds in the Southern Oceans they called them by the same name.

Fragments of the 75cm-tall bird were uncovered during excavation of a Roman and medieval site in Portland, Dorset, between 2005 and 2006.

Dr Mark Maltby of Bournemouth University confirmed the rare find after analysing 13,600 bone fragments which were unearthed in the dig.

Susann Palmer, director of The Association for Portland Archaeology which supervised the dig, said: “It’s a wonderful discovery and Dr Maltby said it was of international importance because records of it in earlier periods are extremely rare.”

Remains have been discovered in other parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Isles of Scilly but Mrs Palmer added: “This is the first time it has been found on the south coast.”

The birds, which lived on a diet of fish, laid just one egg each year, which was incubated on land and hatched in June.

But while they were strong swimmers, their flightlessness, clumsiness on land and lack of innate fear of humans made them an easy target for hunters.

Fossils in Peru of giant penguins: here.

Past human exploitation of birds on the Isle of Man: here.

4 thoughts on “Remains of great auk found at English south coast

  1. Raiders of the lost auk discover rare remains in university museum

    EXCLUSIVE: Phil Miller, Arts Correspondent

    Published on 18 Jan 2010

    For zoologists at Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery at Glasgow University, the Great Auk was a subject of much dismay.

    The existence of the flightless great birds, which once lived in Scotland and were hunted to extinction in the 19th century, was not represented in the university’s massive collections of more than one million items.

    Now, however, it appears that for the last 30 years the museum has had the skeletal remains of the birds, dubbed the “original penguins”, all along, but did not realise. Now the bones, found in a grave at Crosskirk Broch in Caithness in the early 1970s, will be able to be viewed by the public after being rediscovered in an extensive new categorisation of the museum’s collections.

    Experts at the museum would have taken 50 years to sort through the paper records of their entire collections – which span from fine art to physics equipment owned by Lord

    Kelvin, to coins, rocks and geological finds, Egyptian and Roman artefacts, to the natural sciences, sculpture and medical collections – and put them on easily accessible computer files.

    However, with a fresh way of categorising items in the collection – putting similar objects together in groups rather than noting them all individually – a small team of archivists will have the information about the entire collection available online by the end of 2010. Along the way, the university is finally discovering what is in its unrivalled collections, which is where the Great Auk comes in.

    John Faithfull, a curator of rocks and minerals and in charge of the process, said: “We still have 870,000 items to go in this process but what this has done is allowed us to take a short cut – decide to not do the impossible and log online each individual item, but group things together so that people can then investigate further.

    “By and large we knew what he had here but they were all recorded in specialist groupings, so archaeology, zoology or

    whatever may have known what they had but the other did not. Now we are discovering a broader view. We have found some interesting things along the way and the Great Auk is a prime example. Because they were included in an archeological find they were put with our archeological items and zoologists never knew we had them.

    “We never knew, and indeed our zoologists have been quite depressed about it because they are such a glamourous, high-profile bird, but here, by goodness, we do have one.”

    At the moment, 130,000 items are listed online by the museum, but a website to access information on the entire collection should be completed by Mr Faithfull and his assistants, Rachel Jennings and Shan Macdonald, by the end of summer.

    “The public, academics, even schoolkids will be able to see what we have and arrange to come and see them,” said Mr Faithfull.

    Creatures that went the way of Great Auk

    By Rebecca Gray

    The Great Auk: Found on islands off Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Ireland and Great Britain, it was the only species in the Pinguinus, a group of birds that included several flightless giant auks, to survive until modern times. Their inability to fly and awkwardness on land led to them being hunted to extinction.

    The Dodo: a flightless bird, left, found on Mauritius. Extinct since the mid-7th century, the Dodo stood about three feet tall, weighed around 44 lb and lived on fruit and nesting found on the ground.

    Guam Flying Fox: A fruit bat, native to Guam, on the Marianas island chain. Considered a delicacy, this species was extensively hunted, which led to its extinction in the mid-20th century.

    Javan Tiger: Excessive hunting and loss of habitat led to the extinction of the Javan Tiger in the 1980s. By 1950s, only around 25 tigers were surviving in the wild of the Indonesian island.

    Little Swan Island Hutia: A guinea pig-like rodent and a slow-moving creature that left the caves and lime stone crevices to feed on barks, twigs and leaves. A hurricane in 1955 resulted in loss of habitat, and the introduction of house cats to the island led to the creature’s extinction.


  2. Pingback: Extinct birds and art | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: Extinct great auk discovery in Scotland | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  4. Pingback: Great auk bones discoveries in the Netherlands | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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