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The First "Penguin"

The Great Auk – the first “penguin” Latin name pinguinus impennis

The first bird to be given the name “penguin” was the flightless Great Auk that roamed the Northern Oceans. It was a strong swimmer and wintered as far south as Spain and Florida. It was made extinct by human greed in 1844. When British sailors saw similar flightless birds in the Southern Oceans they called them by the same name.
The inuit name for the great auk was isarukitsck which meant little wing. The last 2 were killed on Eldey Island Iceland.
It is very good news that a collaboration between british and Canadian scientists is attempting to clone and return them to Fair Isle. The nearest DNA sequencing is the razorbill.

16th Century Origin

The name is of 16th Century origin and there are many suggestions for its derivation. It had a white patch between its beak and eye and one suggestion is from the welsh pen (head) plus gwyn (white). Another is pen wing , from the meaning pen as partial or almost and wing meaning not a full wing. A third possibility is from the latin pinguis (fish) and a fourth is from an island in Newfoundland known as White Head due to a large white rock.

Same Size As Penguins

Its latin name is Alca Impennis or Penguinus impennis and it comes from the family Alcidae like the little auks, puffins and razorbills. The name auk comes from the old norse Alka. It was 28 inches in height compared with the 16 inches of the guillemot or razorbill and had a fat plump appearance. It had a black bill, white front black back and weighed about 5 kg. Its feet and claws were black. It laid a single creamy white pear shaped egg in colonies near sea level.

A Sad Fate For A Beautiful Bird

They ate fish like herring, diving from a floating position in the sea. Unfortunately as it could not fly it was easy prey for hunters who took ship loads of great auks and their eggs for food and their skins. When it became clear that they were becoming rare there was some attempt to legislate against the slaughter. But this only made things worse as they became even more sought after by collectors and museums. The last pair was killed off Iceland on 3 June 1844. I hope they will be high on the list for regenesis when genetic engineering gets to that level.

Adult Great Auk

The great auk or gare fowl ranged the North Atlantic from Scandinavia to Canada and bred on offshore islands including several Scottish ones. It was related to today’s guillemots and razorbills, especially the razorbill but unlike them it could not fly. It dived for fish and was a good swimmer but was slow and clumsy on land.

Modern man who killed vast numbers for meat, fat, and feathers had raided the great auk’s breeding colonies for meat and eggs since Stone Age times and relentless exploitation finally drove the great auk to extinction.
at one stage in Scotland a pair of great auks were arrested, taken to court, condemned to death and hanged!
Picture:An Adult Great Auk.

A Juvenile Great Auk

In 1830 when the great auk was already scarce a volcanic eruption in Iceland killed the only safe breeding site. As the birds became rarer collectors hunted for specimens and the last auk ever seen was reported off Newfoundland in 1852.

The adult great auk is in breeding plumage. The white face patches were lost in winter. The juvenile bird is the only specimen of a young great auk left in the world. These specimens came from Iceland in 1842.

Picture:A Juvenile Great Auk.

Auks Join The Dodo



Picture:The Dodo.


In the 19th Century the Great Auk joined the Dodo, the symbol of human destruction of species which is still going on today.

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Antarctic & Other Penguins Home Page |Penguin Food Chain |The Original Penguin - The Great Auk |Prehistoric Penguins |Emperor Penguins |King Penguins |Gentoo Penguins |Chinstrap Penguins |Adelie Penguins |Macaroni Penguins |Rockhopper Penguins |Royal Penguins |Yellow Eyed Penguins |Erect Crested Penguins |Snares Island Crested Penguins |Fiordland Crested Penguins |African Penguins |Magellanic Penguins |Humboldt Penguins |Galapagos Penguins |Little Blue Penguins |White Flippered Penguins |Penguins - Historic Glimpses |Penguin Art Gallery |Message Board |Guestbook |Mail Form