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Learning from the Great Auk

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I recently had a chance to see the award-winning documentary March of the Penguins , and like audiences everywhere I was thoroughly amazed by the extremes that emperor penguins endure to propagate their unique species.

I also wondered why any species – especially one that can swim so well, would hobble more than 70 km over the Antarctic ice cap to breed, lay eggs and raise young. For most animals the slow processes of evolution and natural selection make life easier over time, and I’m astonished that in thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of years, none of the penguins ever said ‘screw this, I’m spending next winter in Tierra del Feugo’. Or maybe they did, but didn’t live long enough to tell about it.

I realized then that the need for security – a remote place away from leopard seals, scavenging birds and man for several months of the year – probably more than justifies the long waddle, the extreme cold and bottomless hunger of the Antarctic shelf. It could also have made the difference between success and extinction.

In that vein of thinking, March of the Penguins reminded me of another species of bird, the less successful distant cousin of the emperor penguin known as the Great Auk.

Once upon a time large breeding colonies of this flightless sea bird roosted along the coasts of the North Atlantic, Greenland, Iceland, the British Isles and Scandanavia. The Auk also went one better than its penguin cousins, choosing to winter as far south as Florida.

The Great Auk (Pinguinis impennis) is long gone. Man hunted this species to extinction in the 19 th century, with the last kills reported in around 1844 on Iceland.

The last Canadian Great Auk populations mostly likely disappeared in the 1600’s, shortly after the appearance first Europeans. It was too tempting a food source for trigger happy explorers and settlers who lacked the survival skills of First Nations.

When Jacques Cartier set sail for the new world in 1534 with two ships and 61 men, seeking a passage to the Orient, he landed at what is now called Prince Edward Island. Once there he and his men shot and killed over 1,000 birds, probably most of the local Great Auk population. The extermination continued as Cartier probed inland, up the St. Lawrence River.

The poor birds didn’t stand a chance. They were slow, curious, easy to shoot (standing at about 75 cm high) and made for good eating.

The Great Auk was also hunted elsewhere in the North Atlantic by whalers and fisherman before and after Cartier’s day – mostly for food but increasingly as a source of down for mattresses.

Like emperor penguins, the Great Auk were not brood breeders – one egg a year was all they could contribute to their species. When the slaughter started in earnest, the species could not recover quickly enough and the process of extinction began to snowball. By the time people realized the species was in danger of becoming extinct it was already too late.

The final blow came from man. Even as the species itself became increasingly rare, that rarity only produced a desire to collect and own the last Great Auk eggs. The only relics of the species that remain are about 70 eggs, about 80 preserved skins, a few stuffed birds, and some bones.

If the Auk had wintered in the far reaches of the Arctic, waddling 70 km out onto ice floes instead of Florida, we may still have Great Auks to admire today. Then again, with a species like the polar bear to contend with, it’s no wonder they stuck to open water and warmer currents.

There are currently 487 ‘Species At Risk’ in Canada, according to Environment Canada. About 13 species are listed as extinct.

For more on these rarified plants and animals, and what efforts are being undertaken to protect them and their habitats, visit www.speciesatrisk.gc.ca.

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