There are plenty of dinosaur books that explore the natural history of extinct creatures. But The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk explores, in greater detail and with much greater authority than dinosaur books ever achieve, the natural history of a creature tht went extinct in 1844. It explores with heartbreaking specificity why it went extinct and also what the implications of that extinction have been.
I was fascinated to read about the life cycle of the Great Auk. It lived almost its entire life in the ocean–and was very well suited to that environment–but had to come on shore two months a year to mate and hatch chicks. This was a great disadvantage for a creature evolved to life in the sea. When it was trying to escape a predator its only defense was “pathetically “running” towards the water about as fast as you can walk. There was little it could do to defend an egg or chick except angrily clack its beak.” So the Great Auk nested on the most remote islands it could find–as long as the islands didn’t require climbing or flying since the Great Auk could do neither.
This strategy worked remarkably well until humans became seafarers. The rush to extinction accelerated when humans began hunting the Great Auk for oil, feathers, and finally as trophies.
Since the Great Auk has become extinct other birds, including puffins, have taken over its habitat. Puffins require soil to dig their burrows, and the Great Auk’s habitat used to be solely rock. But so many Great Auk carcasses were abandoned on their rocky islands during the heyday of Great Auk hunting, that they decomposed into the soil, which now provides puffin burrows.
The back matter includes not only references and resources but also a list of names for the Great Auk in various languages and a list of species that have gone extinct since the Great Auk’s extinction.
Obviously, there are no photographs of the Great Auk, but the digital art relies on museum specimens to get the birds, the chicks, and their eggs right.
This book is a fascinating look at how evolution can both suit a creature to a particular niche and also end up trapping it in an intolerable situation. And it’s a sobering look at the impact human action can have on the world.
The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk by Jan Thornhill. Groundwood Books: 2016.