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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

A Gap in Nature

Air Date: Week of November 21, 2003

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In the latest installment in our occasional series “A Gap in Nature,” author Tim Flannery tells us the story of the Great Auk, a stately bird of the North Atlantic that was exterminated by humans by the 1800’s.

Transcript

FLANNERY: The Great Auk stood around two feet tall. While clumsy on land, it was at home in the ocean where it presumably chased fish, much as penguins do. The inside of its mouth was bright yellow, and the only noise it was ever heard to utter was a few low croaks. It nested directly on the rocks of its island breeding ground and its eggs were pear-shaped preventing them from rolling away.

While at sea, the Great Auk was safe from human predators, but at its nest it was exquisitely vulnerable, so it had been hunted since prehistoric times. By the 16th century, fishermen were using the auks as bait, filling whole boats with their bodies. As human populations grew throughout the north Atlantic, the Great Auk retreated to remote islands to breed.

By the early 19th century, its few encounters with humans can be described as one naturalist put it, “a squalid list of human ignorance and cruelty.” Perhaps the very last auks to visit Scottish isle of St. Kilda was captured live. It was caged, and a few nights, later strong winds blew up. The islanders knew nothing of this stately creature. So believing it might be a witch, they blamed the winds on the auk. The next morning they beat it to death.

The 1844, the few surviving birds had just one refuge left, the Icelandic island of Eldey. In June of that year, a collector sent a party of sailors there to search for the remaining Great Auks. They soon spotted a pair, standing head and shoulder above the masses of smaller seabirds. Legend has it that the female was brooding an egg, the last hope for the future of this magnificent species.

Pursued by the sailors, the Great Auks made a desperate attempt to reach the safety of the water, but one was trapped between rocks, while the other was seized just a few feet from the edge of the sea. Both were clubbed to death, and their egg, it was said, crushed beneath a fisherman’s boot. Today, some 80 skins and 75 eggs held in museum collections are all that remain of the Great Auk.

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GELLERMAN: Tim Flannery is author of, “A Gap in Nature,” discovering the world’s extinct animals. To see a picture of the Great Auk and other ex-animals, go to our web site livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org. And while you’re there, please see our invitation to join host Steve Curwood on the next African Eco-Tour.

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CURWOOD: I’d like to invite you to join me in May on an Eco-Tour of some of Africa’s great natural areas. We’ll go on a special walking safari in South Africa’s amazing Kruger National Park. The park has 16 ecosystems. It’s home to nearly 700 species of birds and mammals. It’s a land of diversity, but Kruger is most famous for an abundance of “the big five”: lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalo, and elephants. You’ll have the rare opportunity to see all these animals up close, as guides take you on day hikes and night drives. We’ll get close, but not too personal with the critters.

There are two ways that you can join the caravan. Go to living on earth dot org to find out how you can win a trip for two. You can also reserve a space by buying a ticket right now. For details, visit our web site – livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org for a chance at the trip of a lifetime.

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