Exhibit of the Week: The great auk egg – part of Scarborough Collections

Great auk eggs are being scanned to see how they compare to their closest living relatives and DNA samples are being studied to see what secrets can be revealed.
Great auk eggs are being scanned to see how they compare to their closest living relatives and DNA samples are being studied to see what secrets can be revealed.

Eagle eyed readers may recognise this exhibit, donated to the museum in 1877 by Captain Alwin Shutt Bell, from an article we wrote back in 2013.

The reason why we’ve chosen this object again will soon become clear.

Friday 18 May was International Museum Day and the theme of the day was Hyperconnected Museums.

We decided to collaborate with museums and researchers worldwide to share information about the great auk and look at the bigger picture of extinction.

Around 30 different museums were involved.

Using the hashtag #TheLostAuk, we even had Chris Packham tweeting about great auks to our @SMT_Collections twitter account!

Great auks were once abundant in the sub-arctic regions of the north Atlantic, breeding in flocks of several thousand on remote islands from the coasts of Newfoundland to Scandinavia.

A large flightless relative of razorbills and puffins, they were swift moving and elegant in the water, but clumsy and slow on land, and at nearly a meter tall were much sought after by man for food, feathers and oil.

Small scale harvesting of great auks had been carried out for thousands of years. Bones have been found at the incredible Neanderthal site at Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar where they were being eaten 100,000 years ago.

In Newfoundland, great auk remains have been found in graves dating back 40,000 years so it seems, at least for some time, these birds were revered.

The beginning of the end for the great auk came in the 16th Century.

As European explorers expanded their searches west a great need for fresh food was sadly met by the wholesale exploitation of this bird.

One of the largest breeding colonies was on a small island off the coast of Newfoundland. Funk Island was once home to tens of thousands of great auk. Laying a single egg each year made the birds vulnerable to hungry sailors, who would not only collect the eggs, but also the adults for fresh meat. Catching great auks was easy.

They were so unused to humans, that they were simply herded up gangplanks onto awaiting boats and then killed in their thousands. As well as killing them for their meat and eggs, they were also exploited for their oil, and their feathers were taken to stuff the mattresses of the newly established colonies.

The situation was so extreme that in 1794 Britain banned the killing of this bird, but by then it was too late.

The last British great auk was seen in 1840. The final colony lived on the small island of Eldey off the coast of Iceland. When this colony was discovered in the 1830s there were fewer than 50 pairs remaining. Icelanders had always harvested great auk, but now there was a more lucrative market.

The extreme rarity of this bird meant that they could realise high prices in the collectors market, and most of the remaining eggs and skins in museum collections were collected from this one tiny island in a little over a decade.

In June 1844, the last breeding pair were killed, an Icelandic fishermen crushing the last egg of this species with his boot during the pursuit.

The species never laid another egg, and the last individual was seen in 1852.

Today many other species face the fate of the great auk. Pangolins, tigers, gorillas, elephants and rhinoceros, to name but a small few are exploited for traditional medicine, meat and decorative trades.

For a species that was once so common, there are surprisingly few remains in museum collections, just over 60 eggs, with a few more in private collections, and nearly 80 mounted birds.

Museums are now the only places to see this enigmatic species and modern science is beginning to reveal more information about the species.

The eggs are being scanned to see how they compare to their closest living relatives and DNA samples are being studied to see what secrets can be revealed.

Let’s hope this symbol of extinction can at least help people see the fragility of the natural world.

The great auk egg is part of the Scarborough Collections and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust.

For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.