Our Treasure of the Month: A Penguin from the North?

Set up dry preparation of the Giant Auk (habitus preparation in the bird diorama) from ca. 1830 in the Museum Koenig. © Volker Lannert. Source: Rheinische Wunderkammer, Wallstein-Verlag, p. 63


It can’t fly, but it can swim marvellously and looks like a penguin – but it’s not one at all. Our Treasure of the Month comes from the North and is the last Great Auk – because in the wild, it is no longer found, only in natural history museums like the Museum Koenig in Bonn. Unfortunately, the species became extinct about 180 years ago, once again, due to human activities.

The Great Auk, also known as Garefowl, is not related to the penguins we’re familiar with – even though there is an unmistakable resemblance. As the scientific name Pinguinus impennis suggests, people officially referred to it as a penguin back then until the name was later used for the unrelated birds of the Southern Hemisphere.

There are not many first-hand reports about the Great Auk in its natural habitat, the sea, but it has been reported that they could swim just as fast and skilfully as other birds flew in the air. Nobody knows how they have spent most of their lives, but for six to eight weeks a year, the birds were certainly on land to breed and raise their offspring. They did this in large colonies on remote islands in the North Atlantic.

Their ventures ashore proved to be fatal for these animals: As sailors crossed the vast ocean from the “Old World” to the “New World,” they discovered that the birds and their eggs were the perfect source to replenish their food supplies along their long journeys. On land, the clumsiness of the birds made them easy prey for hungry seafarers. Sometimes, they were simply herded onto boats using ramps. Great Auks have been valued not only for their delicious meat but also for their oil, fat reserves, and feathers. Thousands were killed, their numbers dwindled, and eventually, they became so rare that any captured bird was sold at a high price to collectors.

Extensive documentation suggests that sadly, the last two Great Auks were hunted and killed on the remote Icelandic island of Eldey on June 3, 1844. After that, the hunt for preserved specimens and eggs by collectors looking to add prestige to their collections began. In 1895, the sale of a Great Auk specimen was recorded for £350. The last sale of a specimen occurred in 1974 for $25,000. There are approximately 80 known preserved specimens and 75 eggs. Each of them is named and well-documented.

Alexander Koenig, the founder of the Museum Koenig Bonn, acquired the “Floors Castle” Great Auk along with three eggs: “Mechlenburg’s Egg,” “Alexander Koenig’s Egg,” and the “Clungunford Egg.” The number of assembled skeletons is countless. This is because most skeletons were composed of various bones from Funk Island, a tiny island off Newfoundland where the fat of thousands of slaughtered birds was used to fuel fires and pluck more birds easily. The result was a complete disaster for the populations there and serves as a reminder today of how important our laws are to protect endangered species.

3 Giant auk eggs: it is believed that the spots on the eggs are not for camouflage, but rather for identification, so that the parents can recognize their eggs among thousands of others in a large colony. © Till Töpfer
Giant auk portrait: The beak grooves help distinguish individuals. © Till Töpfer


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