Humans May Be Solely to Blame for the Great Auk’s Extinction
by Brigit Katz/Smithsonian.com
The great auk, a large, flightless bird with a black back and a white belly, once lived across the North Atlantic—from Scandinavia to the eastern coast of Canada. Since prehistoric times, humans hunted these great animals, which could reach two-and-a-half feet in height, for their meat and eggs. But around the early 16th century, when European seaman discovered the large auk populations of Newfoundland, the killing of the birds reached rapacious levels. “Enormous numbers were captured,” writes Encyclopedia Britannica, “the birds often being driven up a plank and slaughtered on their way into the hold of a vessel.”
By the mid 19th century, the great auk had disappeared. And now, a study published in the journal eLife seeks to answer lingering questions about the birds’ demise: Did humans alone drive auks to extinction? Or was the species already declining due to natural changes in the environment?
Hoping to shed new light on the great auk’s extinction, a team of researchers sequenced the complete mitochondrial genomes of 41 birds, using specimens held in museums, reports Gizmodo’s Ryan F. Mandelbaum. The remains dated from 170 to 15,000 years old, and represented individuals from across the auk’s former geographic range.