The Southern Hemisphere is home to those familiar, black and white flightless birds we know as the penguin. Primarily taking up residence in the Antarctic, penguins can be found migrating to the southern tip of South Africa, South America and Australia. But what about the Northern Hemisphere? Are there any species of penguin that once called the Arctic Circle home?
The Original Penguin
The term “Penguin” made its debut in the 16th century and was first associated with a bird known as the Great Auk. The Great Auk was native to the Northern Hemisphere and could be found around the shores of Canada, Northern Europe, Greenland and Iceland.
Despite not being directly related to the penguins of the Southern Hemisphere, the two species were actually quite similar. Both species had similar colored feathers, were flightless, lived in a cold environment and both were aquatic. When European explorers made their way to the Antarctic in the 19th century, they saw a flightless bird species which looked exactly like the Great Auk. They called these birds “penguins”.
The Extinction Of The Northern Penguin
While modern penguins have no natural land predators, the Great Auk had to contend with hungry polar bears and foxes. This kept their numbers comparatively low. But it wasn’t the indigenous land predators that wiped the Great Auk out, it was something more terrifying — humans. Europeans prized the Great Auk’s down which was used to make pillows. The birds were an easy target during their nesting season and it caused their numbers to dwindle even further.
Eventually most European countries passed stiff laws which outlawed the hunting of the auk, however, this had little effect as they became even more prized due to their increased rarity. Rich Europeans paid handsomely for auk eggs and stuffed specimens.
Due to extreme over-hunting by Europeans, the Great Auk was eventually hunted to extinction in the mid-19th century. The last known breeding ground of the Great Auk was destroyed by a volcanic eruption off the coast of Iceland in 1830.
The Great Auk Today
Only 78 complete skins, 24 complete skeletons and 75 unbroken eggs of the Great Auk are known to exist. The specimens are currently owned and on display in museums around the world. One notable specimen was sold to the Icelandic Museum of National History in 1971 and fetched a record price of $14,425 USD. The sale of the stuffed bird made the Guinness Book of Records as “the most expensive stuffed bird ever sold”.
Bonus Fact: The last Great Auk seen in the UK was caught and killed by three men from St Kilda. The men tied the auk up and kept it alive for 3 days. On the third day, a large storm hit the area and the men believed that the auk was a witch and caused the storm. They proceeded to kill the bird by beating it with a stick.
Meldegaard, Morten (1988). “The Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis (L.) in Greenland”. Historical Biology 1
Montevecchi, William A.; David A. Kirk (1996). “Demography-Great Auk”
Fuller, Errol (2003). The Great Auk: The Extinction of the Original Penguin. Bunker Hill Publishing.
Gaskell, Jeremy (2000). Who Killed the Great Auk?. Oxford UP.