Extinction is forever, right? With the rapid development of technology, this may not be so for much longer. While there are groups of people trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth and the Tasmanian tiger, there are others working on less well known, but no less iconic, species. A group of international scientists have met to discuss plans to bring back the great auk, a once common bird that has been dead for 200 years.
The plan is to extract DNA from preserved organs of the birds, which were hunted to extinction in 1844, and then sequence the entire genome before identifying which genes make it distinct from its last closest living relative, the razorbill. Next, they want to take these genes and edit them into the cells of a razorbill embryo, before implanting the egg into a species of bird large enough to bare it.
Superficially, the birds look somewhat similar to a penguin, and indeed they filled something of the same niche on just the other sides of the planet. In fact, it was the flightless great auk that the first explorers of the SouthernHemisphere thought of when they saw penguins waddling around on ice floes, to such an extent that they named them after their northern counterpart, which carries the Latin name Pinguinus impennis.
The term “penguin” was originally used synonymously with “great auk”, as can be seen in a passage written in 1794 by sailor Aaron Thomas, who describes how the birds were systematically slaughtered for their feathers, something thateventually led to the poor birds downfall.
Thomas wrote: While you abide on this island you are in the constant practize of horrid cruelties for you not only skin them Alive, but you burn them Alive also to cook their Bodies with. You take a kettle with you into which you put a Penguin or two, you kindle a fire under it, and this fire is absolutely made of the unfortunate Penguins themselves. Their bodys being oily soon produce a Flame; there is no wood on the island.
The destruction of the birds as recounted in that rather distressing piece meant that they were rapidly wiped out from their coastal breeding grounds on both sides of the Atlantic. Even when the British protected them from being hunted for their feathers, their numbers were so perilously low that the animals became desirable to collectors, who would pay a handsome sum for specimens. Eventually, the last birds were killed on the island of Eldey off the coast of Iceland in 1844.
With plans already afoot to bring back the passenger pigeon and the mammoth, perhaps the northern seas will be filled with great auks once again.