The Great Auk was a large, flightless seabird from the North Atlantic that was hunted to extinction in 1844. The birds were easy to exploit from their remote nesting colonies, where sailors were said to sometimes simply herd the live birds up gangplanks and into their boats. The birds provided a source of fresh meat on long voyages, and were a welcome relief from hard tack. The large eggs were also collected for food, and auk down provided insulation. Once humans developed the ability to reliably sail to nesting colonies of Great Auks, the species was headed down the all-too-familiar path of exploitation that leads to extinction.
Their superficial resemblance to penguins is a wonderful example of convergent evolution, i.e., unrelated species developing through natural selection similar strategies to solve similar problems. In this case, both penguins (order Sphenisciformes) and auks or alcids (order Charadriiformes – this includes auks as well as terns, gulls, plovers, and sandpipers) have evolved the ability to swim rapidly and at depth in ocean water to pursue fish. Through convergent evolution, both groups have developed thick, torpedo-shaped bodies, dense plumage for warmth in cold climates, countershaded coloration (dark above and white below), and reduced wings that can assist in swimming by flapping underwater.
A closer look, however, reveals important differences. For example, auks possess clearly webbed feet, and these probably provide a good deal of propulsion during swimming. The heavy, club-like feet of penguins are generally not used during swimming, as propulsion comes mainly from the flipper-like wings. A penguin’s wings are in fact so modified as flippers for swimming, that they are stiff and bladelike, having lost the ability to fold against the body as do the wings of most other birds. Auk wings are different, in fact all 22 living species are able fliers while all penguins are flightless. Finally, these two groups of seabirds are separated geographically: all auks occur exclusively in the Northern Hemisphere (principally in the far north) and penguins are confined to the Southern (except of course, for the Galapagos Penguin, whose distribution straddles the Equator).
To further add to the confusion between penguins and auks, the word “penguin” is thought to derive from “pinioned” or “pin-winged”. When sailors first encountered the flightless Great Auk with its reduced wings, they described it as a bird who’d had its wings clipped to keep it from flying away. As more and more Europeans explored the southern oceans , they encountered there many black and white “pinioned” seabirds, and they referred to them as they did to the Great Auk – “penguins.” So penguins actually get that name from the history of sailors encountering the flightless Great Auk, and unrelated species from an entirely different hemisphere. Now you know.
But I digress . . .
The reason I’m posting about Great Auks today is that I encountered one recently. Well, sort of, but I was wrong.
While enjoying a great visit with old chum Greg Keller now at Gordon College in Massachusetts, Greg indicated that he had something really cool to show me – something he inherited as part of the College’s natural history collection.
He produced a leaded glass box containing several old eggs.
Only one, that of a Mute Swan, was labeled. The others were fairly easy to identify as ostrich, emu, and rhea, but the last two seemed a bit more interesting. One was not much larger than a chicken egg, and it had a buffy-olive color. Would an oologist from the 19th century have included the egg of a Rhode Island Red in a prized collection like this? It didn’t make sense. Then it hit me – tinamou! Tinamous are roughly chicken-sized and shaped birds from Central and South America that are most closely related to the rheas, ostriches, and emus. Tinamou eggs are beautifully glossy, and this would really have been a treasured specimen for an egg collector.
But the egg that really captured our attention was different. It was an obvious charadriiform egg, based on its pyriform shape and the pattern of uneven dark blotches on a light background. It was however, huge – almost as big as the emu egg in the box. Greg had done some background research based on his hunch that the egg in question was actually that of a Great Auk. All evidence pointed to that being the case. If authentic, this would be the rediscovery of a currently uncatalogued specimen of an extinct species, and a priceless find. It was a thrilling item to behold.
Alas, Greg finally had the chance to travel to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and direct comparison with known eggs confirmed his nagging suspicion that the Great Auk egg in his possession is, in fact, a well-crafted replica.
While our hopes of having encountered a piece of an extinct creature were dashed, I find myself perhaps even more interested in the mystery. Who made this egg, and why? Was there money to be had in producing egg forgeries during the height of the egg collection fad of the 19th century? Was this an honestly produced replica used for display while its authentic antecedent was kept in a more secure location? Had the original owner of the egg been the craftsman who produced it, or had he himself been duped into thinking it was authentic? Where one mystery ends, a new one begins . . .