Monday, 7 September 2009


Caught a great piece of biological trivia the other day on the radio thanks to David Attenborough (as part of his Life Stories series).

Penguins, apparently, are not the first birds to bear the name. Prior to the 19th century, populations of the Great Auk occurred all over the North Atlantic wherever there were remote islands that protected them and their eggs from land-dwelling predators. The Great Auk was actually classified by Linnaeus as genus Pinguinus from one of its common names. Anyway, when sailors finally made their way to southern hemisphere locations such as Antarctica, they named the flightless aquatic birds that they found there after the Great Auk, to which they bear a resemblance but have no close evolutionary relationship.

The sad side to this story is, of course, that the Great Auk is no more. Much like the more famous flightless Dodo, the Great Auk didn't have a chance when we turned up on the islands that it nested on. If we didn't hunt it down directly, the assorted animals that accompanied us on our travels around the world did the job for us. As a result, it never saw the end of the 19th century.

Anyway, fascinating but dispiriting at the same time.

No comments: