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Research Case: The Great Auk

August 24, 2007 – January 14, 2008

Museum: Natural History Museum

Sponsor: Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Location: Ground Floor, Constitution Ave. Lobby, East Side

Now extinct, the great auk (Pinguinus impennis), a flightless bird, once inhabited the shores of the North Atlantic by the millions. The wings of the great auk were specialized for "flying" underwater but not on land; to escape its enemies on land, it needed islands free from predators to nest. Humans probably began hunting the great auk on islands close to shore in prehistoric times, and as maritime technology improved, went to islands farther out to sea to hunt this bird for food, oil, feathers, and even fish bait. By 1800, most great auk colonies had been wiped out; the last known pair was killed by collectors in 1844.

Objects on view include:

  • A specimen of the great auk collected in 1834 and an egg
  • 2 journal articles on the great auk from 1893 and 2007
  • A photo of Storrs L. Olson, the museum's senior zoologist and curator of birds.