• Geirfugl

The Great Auk

 The first treasure of Points of View: 18.4.2015 - 13.9.2015

A collaborative project of the Icelandic Museum of Natural History and The Icelandic Institute of Natural History.


The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennisis) is an extinct bird specis of the Auk family (Alcidae), but for about thousand years ago they were relatively common in the northern part of the Atlantic, in both Europe and America.

The Great Auk was a sought after prey for its feathers, meat, fat and oil. The birds were large, weighing up to 5 kg, flightless and clumsy on land, hence they were easily caught.

Presumably, colonies of Great Auk soon became diminished in the wake of settlement of Europeans in Iceland and along the NW-coast of America. Written accounts, however, indicate that Great Auks were still to be found in considerable numbers in Iceland in the 17th century, but from the mid-18th century and onwards, sightings became few and far between.

The Great Auk on display here is the property of the Icelandic nation, bought in 1971 at an auction in Sotheby´s, London. The money was raised in a public collection in four days only and the price amounted to the value of a three-room apartment.

This is the only specimen of Great Auk in Iceland, probably killed in 1821 at Hólmsberg, on Reykjanes peninsula. The last two surviving Great Auk´s on Earth are thought to have been killed in the first week of June 1884 on the island Eldey, SW off Reykjanes peninsula.

About 80 Great Auk skins and 75 eggs exist in the world today, most of them from Iceland.

The extermination of the Great Auk is a tragedy in human history. It has to be kept in mind though that knowledge about nature and the environment at that time was more limited than at present. However, from this tragic event an important lesson may be drawn about relationship between man and nature.

„The fate of the Great Auk should teach us to treat cautiously those birds, that are becoming fewer on this island, e.g. the Sea eagle and the Great skua, and remember that the heritage of birds the man has received from earlier generations, is to be delivered to the comming generations.“
Peter Nielsen. 1925.