A hand-coloured lithograph depicting a great auk.

A hand-coloured lithograph depicting a great auk. Plate 46 from John Gould's The Birds of Great Britain, Vol. 5 (1873). 

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When worlds collide: the lesson of the great auk

Pictured below is the last remaining specimen of a British great auk, a flightless seabird driven to extinction in the nineteenth century.

It is a lesson in what can happen to an ocean-dwelling species when human greed runs rampant.

Great auks were once common in the waters of the North Atlantic.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that the birds lived in scattered colonies across the ocean. They only bred on remote, rocky islands around Canada, Greenland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and the UK.

Although great auks look similar to penguins, they are not related. But they shared some lifestyle similarities: great auks also could not fly, and the adults spent much of their time diving into the water to feed on fish.

The last British great auk specimen

The last British great auk specimen, which is in the Museum's research collection


The death of a species

The demise of these birds was not down to habitat loss but human exploitation. The last living bird was seen in 1852, after the rest of its species had been killed for feathers, meat, fat and oil.

Great auks waddled awkwardly on land, making them easy prey for hunters. They were slaughtered in huge numbers when they came ashore to breed.

European fishermen and whalers devastated the largest colony, in Newfoundland, despite a petition in 1775 to stop the massacre.

In the early 1800s, the birds were even more prized as they became steadily rarer, and collectors paid huge sums for just a single egg or skin. Demand from museums and collectors dealt a final, deadly blow in 1844, when the last unfortunate breeding pair fled in vain from hunters, who also crushed their single egg.

The great auk has now become a powerful symbol of the damage humans can cause.

Douglas Russell, Senior Curator of Birds at the Museum, says, 'The threats facing our flora and fauna are as great, if not greater, than they were when we lost the great auk.  Their demise, just a few generations ago, was ultimately down to centuries of relentless human exploitation.'

Great auk eggs at the Natural History Museum at Tring

There are a collection of great auk eggs held in the collections of the Natural History Museum at Tring. They are pictured here in their collection boxes.


The last specimen

The male pictured above was taken from Papa Westray, one of the Orkney Islands, off the northern tip of Scotland.

It is the only certainly British specimen that still exists, and before it died it was part of the last pair in the country.

It was collected from the island in May 1813, and was purchased by the British Museum in 1819 after its original owner, William Bullock, sold his entire vast collection of natural history specimens. 

New research

In 2017 the Museum embarked on a groundbreaking project, in collaboration with the University of Sheffield, to compare the microstructure of three of its best-preserved great auk eggshells to that of their living relatives.

Sciensts are hoping to get new insights into the birds' breeding ecology.  Meanwhile, a team of international researchers led by Bangor University have also  used genetics to discover the whereabouts of the last great auks.  

Find out more

Read more about the Museum's project to investigate great auk eggs.

Discover more about marine life and the work Museum scientists are doing to protect it

You can see a great auk specimen in the Museum's Treasures Cadogan Gallery.