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Great Auk


  • Scientific name: Pinguinus impennis
  • Habitat: Rocky islands off North Atlantic coasts
  • Conservation status: Extinct since 1844
  • Cause of extinction: Over-hunting
  • Fun fact: The great auk was a flightless bird

Additional source: Britannica

Image source: The Telegraph

By now, some theories had come forward as to the cause of some animals to perish and disappear altogether from the face of the earth. Cuvier eventually settled on the notion that some very dramatic changes or events had led to these mass extinctions. This would be coined catastrophism. Therefore, in the absence of catastrophes, there would not be any extinctions, right? Wrong. Darwin is one of the first who not only brought forward the idea that species will change over time, but that this change leads to some unsuccessful species dying off completely. Okay, so some species will go extinct over a very long period of time, but that’s it, right? Wrong again. Yes species will disappear at a baseline background rate but in one shocking discovery, humanity figured out that we could be the sole cause of extinction. And here is where our unfortunate Great Auk comes onto the stage.

The Great Auk was so abundant that sailors and others used them for basically any purpose imaginable. Within the blink of the evolutionary eye, they were gone forever. Kolbert continues down the path of showing us the journey that led to our understanding of extinction. As a recap, first Cuvier discovers extinction but proposes that it is only caused by catastrophes. Then Darwin, steps up and shows us that it is a constant process by which new species come into existence even, but the process is incredibly slow, that mankind’s perspective is pretty much irrelevant. But finally, we witnessed, without any potential excuse of being oblivious, a bird considered infinite in abundance disappear completely. Man then realized our potential agency in the extinction process.

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