Who Killed the Great Auk?—Jeremy Gaskell. 2000. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K. xi + 227 pp., 1 color plate, 48 text figures. ISBN 0-19-856478-3. Hard cover, $40.00.—A quirky title on a magnificent jacket cover and for the most part an interesting read shape the dimensions of Who Killed the Great Auk? The poignant, ethereal images of the penguins of the North Atlantic on the jacket crafted by Errol Fuller, artist and author of The Great Auk (1999), almost compel one to cradle this book. Using the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) as the medium, Gaskell weaves lore, legend, and human involvement with the species' fate into an historical and geographic essay with implications for extinction, conservation, ignorance, over-harvesting, ethics, environmental responsibility, and legislation to mention some.

While at times a bit ponderous and tangential, Gaskell demonstrates that the hind-casting of historical exploration and analysis like that of archaeology and paleontology often reward the researcher with new perspectives and on occasion deep understanding—lessons for the present. Such exercises hone the wit of skepticism and heighten motivation to uncover unknown clues and ignored, overlooked, and even unappreciated writings of those who worked during previous centuries. Gaskell does a fair bit of uncovering.

Gaskell squarely blames the Great Auk's extinction on the feather collecting crews in Newfoundland who wantonly slaughtered the flightless birds and others in the absence of effective and enforced legislation. As human conditions change, traditions and codes of conduct change with them. So do attitudes and perspectives. As might been the case for European settlers during the 1700s, Gaskell compares an extended stay on Funk Island with a prison sentence. Such situations might well have created circumstances where the most basic instincts for survival came into play. Gaskell's titling of a chapter on Newfoundland—“Uncouth Regions”—is both inappropriate and uncouth. As pointed out, the devastation of seabirds and other avifauna during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a widespread North American and European activity. It is historically surprising that so little is known about the Great Auk in Europe and in the Northeast Atlantic in general (see Lyngs 1994). There are many discoveries yet to be made.

For centuries and millennia before European incursions, aboriginal peoples also killed Great Auks on Funk Island and elsewhere in eastern North America (Montevecchi and Tuck 1987) and Greenland (Melgaard 1988). Their values were likely different. Today, a research visit to Funk Island is a privileged luxury afforded to but a few (Montevecchi 1994).

As have others, Gaskell uses comparative studies of Razorbills (Alca torda) and other alcids to speculate about the behavioral ecology of Great Auks. However, compelling comparisons that can also be made with similarly sized and highly social Adelie (Pygoscelis adeliae) and Gentoo (P. papua) penguins were not grasped.

The ultimate finality associated with the killing of “last known” pair of Great Auks on Eldey Island in 1844 pales in comparison to the act's irrelevance in the species' extinction. Once the population of those very social, highly aggregative, colonially breeding animals was pushed below minimum viable levels, likely before 1800 (Montevecchi and Kirk 1996), the species' fate was sealed. Clearly, the killing of Great Auks cascaded them into the inevitable extinction that followed. As numbers diminished, Great Auks essentially took on the role of highly prized trophy birds for museum curators and for private collectors. Monetary rewards fueled the search for trophies and ensured a relentless pursuit of the remaining individuals of the once robust population. Although the auk's final ignominious eradication was played out through the hands of Icelandic fishermen and the finances of Danish Museum men, some lost and lonely surviving individuals wandered North Atlantic waters well after 1844.

Tragedy often sows the seeds of affirmation. As Gaskell details, the Great Auk's extinction catalyzed in Newfoundland the first conservation legislation in North America and more widely in the British Empire in 1845 (An Act for the Protection of the Breeding Wild Fowl in this Colony).

This book is a good read for those with interests in history, ornithology, geography, and their interplay through changing human understanding and misunderstanding. The book will likely find a wide readership in public and university libraries.

So who killed the Great Auk? Lots of people did. The pressing problem as is clear with our interactions with marine ecosystems is that we are still doing so in other ways. Who will save this magnificent creature's legacy and protect the oceans where it once roamed? Jeremy Gaskell is making his contribution.

Literature Cited


E. Fuller 1999. The Great Auk. Errol Fuller, Kent, England. Google Scholar


P. Lyngs 1994. Gerjfuglen: Et 150 ars minde (The great Auk: 150 years commemoration). Dansk Ornithologisk Forenings Tidsskrift 88:49–72. Google Scholar


M. Melgaard 1988. The Great Auk Pinguinus impennis (L.) in Greenland. Historical Biology 1:145–178. Google Scholar


W. A. Montevecchi 1994. The Great Auk cemetery. Natural History Magazine 103:86–8. Google Scholar


W. A. Montevecchi and D. A. Kirk . 1987. Great Auk Pinguinus impennis. In The Birds of North America, no. 260 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C. Google Scholar


W. A. Montevecchi and L. M. Tuck . 1987. Newfoundland Birds: Exploitation, Study, Conservation. Publications of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, no. 21. Google Scholar


"Who Killed the Great Auk?," The Auk 119(4), 1211-1213, (1 October 2002). https://doi.org/10.1642/0004-8038(2002)119[1211:]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 October 2002
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