Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)
|Great Auk by John James Audubon 1836|
The Great Auk once had a wide distribution. We have this information from the historical records of early explorers to North America, from bones, literature, cave paintings, etc. Their preferred habitat was the cold waters of the North Atlantic. The only time they came to land was to nest. They spent the rest of the year at sea. They usually remained near the coast but were known to swim as far as 550 km away from land. They were usually where food was abundant. They were known to inhabit the waters off Canada, the United States, Norway, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Ireland, Great Britain, France, and northern Spain. Six breeding colonies that are documented include: Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands, St. Kilda Island (Scotland), Grimsey Island and Eldey Island (Iceland), Funk Island off Newfoundland, and the Bird Rocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There are records suggesting that they bred off Cape Cod (Massachusetts). The largest known breeding colony in the 1800s was on Funk Island.
DNA studies have placed the Great Auk in the Alcid family. It was the only modern species in the genus Pinguinus. Its closest relatives today are the Razorbill and the Dovekie. It was originally placed in the genus Alca (in 1791) but most taxonomists today agree with its being a separate genus. It was one of 4400 species described by Linnaeus who called it Alca impennis. There was another species of flightless bird in the genus Pinguinus in the Early Pliocene which lived in the western Atlantic region but it died out.
The Great Auk was the original penguin. It was the first known flightless, penguin-shaped bird. The penguins of the Southern Hemisphere were unknown at this time. In fact, the southern penguins were named after the Great Auk, even though they are not related. It is interesting to consider how the name evolved.
Firstly, the name, Pinguinus, is from early Spanish and Portuguese names for the species. The impennis is from Latin meaning ‘lack of flight feathers’ or ‘pennae’. The word ‘penguin’ first appeared in the 16th century as a synonym for great auk. The Welsh word ‘pen gwyn’ meant ‘white head’ but this origin is debated. It also might have meant ‘pen-winged’ after its pinioned wings.
Each of the early cultures had its own name for the great auk. The Basques called it ‘arponaz’ meaning ‘spearbill’. The French named it ‘apponatz’. The Norse and Icelanders called it “geirfugl’ also meaning ‘spearbill’. This led to the English name, ‘garefowl’ or ‘gairfowl’. The Inuit called it ‘isarukitsok’ meaning ‘little wing’. In historical records and literature from the 17th and 18th centuries it was called ‘geirfugl’, ‘garefowl’, penguin, or ‘great auk’.