Cabinet 20 in the Trinity College Zoological Museum is not crammed with specimens, instead it contains only one, the Great Auk. This specimen, collected off Waterford in 1834, represents the last recorded sighting of this species in Ireland. It wasn’t long after this that the species became extinct when the last known individuals were killed on a small island off Iceland in 1844. The specimen in Cabinet 20 is one of the very few Great Auks remaining in any museum today and is the only one to be seen in Ireland. What does the future hold for this long-forgotten bird?
The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) was a medium-sized, flightless bird, numbering in the millions, which once roamed the coastal waters of the North Atlantic. Superficially it may resemble a penguin, but the Great Auk was not closely related to penguins. The closest living relative of the Great Auk is the Razorbill (Alca torda). Both look similar, occupy the same trans-Atlantic range and share similar feeding habits, however the Razorbill is considerably smaller and is capable of flight. Although an agile diver and expert predator, the Great Auk was clumsy on land and only ever came ashore to rocky islands in order to breed.
Flightlessness made it vulnerable to human exploitation and this occurred on a significant scale from the 8th century onwards. Its ease of capture and large numbers made it a convenient source of food for early explorers crossing the North Atlantic. This was exacerbated by further exploitation for their down, which was used to make pillows. By the mid-16th century nearly all nesting colonies on the European side of the Atlantic had been wiped out by humans. Noticing that the Great Auk population was declining drastically, Victorian enthusiasts and museums all sought to obtain a specimen for their collections. This was the final nail in the coffin of the Great Auk and on the 3rd July 1844 the last known pair were killed on the island of Eldey off the coast of Iceland, ending the Great Auk’s existence on earth. This may seem like the end of the Great Auk’s story and for nearly 200 years it was, but it may not be after all.
Last year an international team of scientists met to discuss the possibility of bringing the Great Auk back to life using contemporary breakthroughs in genetic technology. Although gone, traces of the Great Auk remain, namely: 71 skins, 75 eggs, 24 skeletons, and even some preserved internal organs. At this meeting Professor Tom Gilbert from the University of Copenhagen reported on his preliminary work investigating the genomes of both the Great Auk and the Razorbill. Professor Gilbert’s early work has shown that both birds are indeed genetically closely related. Once their genomes are fully sequenced, scientists hope to edit the genes which are characteristic of the Great Auk into the cells of the Razorbill, its closest living relative. Fertilised embryos would then be implanted into a host bird large enough to carry a Great Auk egg, such as a goose. A considerable captive breeding population would then be developed and eventually animals would be released back into the North Atlantic. While still in its infancy, the meeting concluded that the Great Auk project can and should be pursued.
De-extinction and genetic manipulation may seem like something straight out of Jurassic World, but it’s already happening. The Pyrenean Ibex (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) became extinct in 2000, however on the 30th July 2003 a cloned female was born to a domestic goat. Although it lived only a matter of minutes, this marked the first time in history that a once extinct species was brought back to life. Considerable work is also being done to sequence the genomes of the extinct Tasmanian Wolf, Passenger Pigeon, Gastric-Brooding Frog and Woolly Mammoth, in the hope of resurrecting these long-lost species too.
The Great Auk is a unique example and it may be a good candidate for de-extinction as the original cause of its extinction is no longer present. People no longer harvest wild seabirds in the North Atlantic for meat or other products on a commercial scale, so the Great Auk would be under considerably less pressure than when it last roamed the North Atlantic nearly 200 years ago. In addition suitable habitat still exists for the Great Auk and the Farne Islands off the North-East coast of England have been suggested as a likely reintroduction site by the team of scientists.
Obviously the return of the Great Auk is not going to happen overnight, but the possibility of its return raises many questions and concerns. If the Great Auk does return to North Atlantic coastal waters it will still have to navigate a human-dominated world. Climate change, rising sea levels and overfishing are but a few of the issues that the Great Auk would encounter were it reintroduced. This is mirrored for every extinct species and we have to ask ourselves if we will be able to sufficiently protect any resurrected species and prevent them becoming extinct again. This is particularly poignant when we consider that we are currently unable to protect species which are still alive, let alone a species which has been brought back to life.
This story should end with a cautionary note. Although de-extinction may provide one method of saving extinct species, it comes at a significant economic cost and with numerous ecological unknowns. Our priority should still be to prevent the extinction of other species in the first place. De-extinction cannot be used as an excuse to allow the extinction of a species to occur in the hope that one day we can bring it back. When the last Great Auks were killed in 1844 we lost a unique species and part of the North Atlantic ecosystem. Whether or not the Great Auk will be returned to Ireland’s coasts one day remains uncertain. However the Great Auk in cabinet 20 of the Trinity College Zoological Museum acts as a reminder of this once abundant species and the devastation humans have inflicted on the natural world.