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Penguin of the north

In 1844, the last two great auks were killed by hunters on a tiny island off Iceland, and their sole egg crushed underfoot during the chase. The large, black-and-white, flightless seabirds had once numbered in the millions, but populations had crashed, and museums wanted the birds’ skins. The hunters sold the carcasses to an Icelandic apothecary, who skinned the birds and preserved their organs in jars of whisky, sealing them with whale blubber. Then, 170 years later, genetic researcher Jessica Thomas prised open the jars with a screwdriver (the smell, surprisingly, was “nice and sweet”). The doctoral student at the University of Swansea gathered 66 samples from great auk remains in museums around the world, and analysed their DNA to try to solve a mystery: was the species in decline before intensive harvesting started in the 1500s—or was human hunting alone enough to drive such a numerous species into oblivion? The analyses, published in open-access journal eLife in November 2019, showed the great auk had enjoyed high genetic diversity and a constant population size for thousands of years, and that great auks from across their North Atlantic habitat were able to meet and breed. “There was no indication they were in any way in decline,” says study co-author Michael Knapp, from the University of Otago, where Thomas was based for some of her research. The researchers then simulated how much hunting would have been necessary to drive the great auk to extinction within 350 years, and found that an annual harvest of 210,000 birds and fewer than 26,000 eggs would have led to extinction. Sailors’ journals and other historic reports suggest the actual number of birds killed for their meat, eggs, and feathers is likely to have been far higher. The museum trade finished them off. “These individuals would have probably survived—who knows, until now—if they hadn’t been hunted so intensively,” says Thomas.  “It was the penguin of the north—and we’ve lost our penguin.” The study highlights that “pretty much anything is susceptible to extinction”, says Knapp. “People went to the North Atlantic and it was full of great auks. Nobody would have thought there was any risk.” Some of the great auk’s relatives—the puffin, the murre—are still hunted today, he says, and should be more closely monitored. “Anything we exploit in large numbers we need to be very careful about, even if we think there’s a lot of them.”

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