Friday, 25 April 2014

I miss the Great Auk

Reposted in celebration of World Penguin Day....

I think it was Jeremy Clarkson (funny and clever, but an ass) who wrote a piece a while back asking if anyone missed extinct species, and why should we care. Well, I do. I miss them badly. Not the ones which died out a million years ago, but the ones I just slightly missed, whose time on earth almost overlapped with mine but not quite. The Great Auk is a classic example.

Once found throughout the North Atlantic, including Britain, the Great Auk was the original penguin. The latin for the Great Auk was Pinguinus, and the very word Penguin may derive from the Welsh Pen-Gwyn, or white head. When sailors from Europe sailed to the south seas and encountered flightless birds, they named them after what they already knew. That the thing we now call penguins are seen as exotic, while the creature they were named after is extinct is as good an example of baseline shift as I can think.

Biologically, the Great Auk was basically a fat razorbill that had lost the power of flight, and their similarity to what we now know as penguins is a wonderful example of convergent evolution - a process by  which animals evolve similar forms to fill the same ecological niche in a different part of the world. Like hedgehogs and porcupines or tenrecs.  

Sadly the Great Auks were hunted to extinction, with the last two killed on Iceland in the 1800s. 
The thing is I love penguins, but think of them as something far away and exotic. It saddens me to think that we had our own unique version just a few lifetimes ago, but I missed it.  I saw one stuffed in the Natural History Museum, and it made me feel sad. 

So anyway. I do care if animals go extinct. I can and do give scientific explanations for this in my work all the time, but I don't think I need to. The death of any species diminishes all of us.

Updated in April 2014

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