This large, flightless seabird once nested on seaside cliffs on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The last Great Auks lived on Funk Island off Newfoundland, where they were wiped out by sailors in 1844.
The bones that are lying here in front of you – large, pretty stout bones – belong to a Great Auk. The Great Auk became extinct in about 1844 with the last population on Funk Island, a little island northeast of Newfoundland.
The Great Auk used to be widespread in the north Atlantic Ocean on cliffs on the mainland and offshore islands, but in the whaling boom – especially in the late 1700s-early 1800s – sailors would go ashore and kill Great Auks in huge numbers. They couldn’t fly; they were very tame on their nesting grounds. The Great Auk was a seabird – it ate fish – and sadly the people didn’t realize at the time that they were killing off the last of this species. It wasn’t until a decade or two later that people realized that this population on Funk Island that got wiped out in 1844 was in fact the last population left on earth of the Great Auk.
We have bones of the Great Auk here in Florida. They show up in archaeological middens that are only about a thousand years old. In historic times – the last few hundred years – there are no Great Auk sightings or records this far south. The Great Auk records that we find in Florida probably represent the little ice age when the North Atlantic was a little bit cooler than today and these birds were spending the winter in Florida and were taken by Native Americans as part of their food.
If the Great Auk had been able to survive on just one more island for probably a few more decades we’d probably still have Great Auks today. It just happened to die out a few decades before there was really even any talk of conservation.
Florida Museum of Natural History
Great Auk Bones (Pinguinus impennis)
Found in an archaeological midden, Newfoundland, Canada, May 1958