NOVEMBER 26, 2019
New insight on the extinction history of a flightless seabird that vanished from the shores of the North Atlantic during the 19th century has been published today in eLife.
The findings suggest that intense hunting by humans could have caused the rapid extinction of the great auk, showing how even species that exist in large and widespread populations can be vulnerable to exploitation.
Great auks were large, flightless diving birds thought to have existed in the millions. They were distributed around the North Atlantic, with breeding colonies along the east coast of North America and especially on the islands off Newfoundland. They could also be found on islands off the coasts of Iceland and Scotland, as well as throughout Scandinavia.
But these birds had a long history of being hunted by humans. They were poached for their meat and eggs during prehistoric times, and this activity was further intensified in 1500 AD by European seamen visiting the fishing grounds of Newfoundland. Their feathers later became highly sought after in the 1700s, contributing further to their demise.
"Despite the well-documented history of exploitation since the 16th century, it is unclear whether hunting alone could have been responsible for the species' extinction, or whether the birds were already in decline due to natural environmental changes," says lead author Jessica Thomas, who completed the work as part of her Ph.D. studies at Bangor University, UK, and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Swansea University, Wales, UK.