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Great auk, great loss

Posted by Rose May 15, 2013

May is the month for remembering the greatness of the great auk and why its tale of extinction is one we should not forget. The flightless great auk, Pinguinus impennis, is one of the most powerful symbols of the damage humans can cause. The species was driven extinct in the 19th century as a consequence of centuries of intense human exploitation.

 

At a free talk here tomorrow afternoon, Museum scientist Robert Prys-Jones will explore the Life and Death of the Great Auk, with particular reference to the Museum's own iconic Papa Westray great auk specimen.

 

This celebrated Museum specimen, shown below left, is the only British example of this bird in existence. It was collected 200 years ago in May 1813 from the tiny island of Papa Westray, one of the outer Orkney Islands. The great auk talk is being webcast live for those of you who can't make it here to the Museum's Attenborough Studio.

 

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Left: The Museum's rare Papa Westray great auk.
Right: Specially commissioned great auk taxidermy model on show in our Extinction exhibition.

 

I spoke to our bird curator Jo Cooper before she set out for the great auk bicentenary festival being held in the Orkney Islands this weekend, 17-19 May. She explained a bit about the history of our treasured great auk specimen and the importance of the festival.

 

'I’m making a pilgrimage to the tiny island of Papa Westray where one of the Museum’s most iconic specimens was collected 200 years ago this month. The Papa Westray Great Auk was one of the last of its kind in Britain, and is the only known surviving British example of this bird which went globally extinct in the mid-1840s.

 

'The Papa Westray specimen was purchased by the British Museum in 1819, after its original owner, William Bullock, sold up his entire vast collection of natural history specimens and other curios in a sale lasting 26 days.'

 

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Fowl Craig on the island of Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands, home of the last British great auks. A pilrimage to this spot takes place during the great auk festival this weekend.

'Sadly, our rare specimen is now too fragile to travel safely, so the Museum and Site-Eye Time-Lapse Films have produced a 3D ‘virtual’ Papa Westray Great Auk so that people can still have an encounter with this historic specimen. The virtual auk will be premiered on the island that the original specimen came from, but we have plans to show it more widely later in the year.

 

'We hope that by helping tell the story of the Papa Westray Great Auk during this festival, people will have a greater understanding and appreciation of what has been lost forever from our British bird community and perhaps this will inspire a greater care of what we have.'

 

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You can discover more about the great auk's plight in our Extinction exhibition here at the Museum and get close to a specially-commissioned taxidermy model of a great auk diving. Or go on a Museum trail and find another great auk specimen on display (left) in our Treasures Cadogan Gallery.

 

Follow The Life and Death of the Great Auk webcast live

 

Visit the Extinction: Not the End of the World? exhibition

 

Discover more about the great auk on our website

 

Read about the Papa Westray great auk in our Treasures book