In A Nutshell
We often look at pictures of strange, comical birds with pointed bills, flippers, and tuxedo-like feathers frolicking and fighting in the Antarctic. However, true penguins are in fact extinct, hunted to death in the mid-19th century. The southern waterbirds we see today are a completely unique group of birds that were simply named after the northern hemisphere bird known as the great auk or penguin.
The Whole Bushel
Pinguinis impennis, the great auk, was an enormous Atlantic waterbird that stood just under 1 meter (3.3 ft) tall and weighed up to 5 kilograms (11 lb).
This species, tragically extinct, is also the true penguin, and the many species of southern waterbirds that we call penguins are simply the namesake of the great auk.
Fully flightless, this gentle giant fed on seafood and nested on rocky islets and coastal areas all across the Northern Atlantic region. With tiny, stub wings and a black and white suit of contrasting plumage, this large-billed bird was a close relative of modern puffins, guillemots, and murrelets.
More distant relatives of such Alcidae members include the gulls, terns, and shorebirds. The great auk’s extinction brings surprises as well as tragedy. This bird was, in fact, the original penguin, bearing the name as the sole animal that inspired that specific identification.
Unfortunately, the true and only penguin was driven to extinction by hunting, with feather, meat, fat, and oil demand among the reasons behind persecution of this amazing bird. The rarer the birds got, the more valued they were for specimen collection. It is extremely unfortunate that the conservation ethic and ability to recognize and act on the need for guarding of wild pairs or captive breeding did not come into play in time.
The last living bird was observed in 1852. The name “penguin” was given to similar-looking southern birds by explorers of the bottom half of the planet. While completely unrelated, modern “penguins” from Antarctica, South America, Australia, and Southern Africa share many similarities due to convergent evolution. The plumage patterns, general shape and some behaviors are certainly alike. However, the original and true penguin, a bird of the North, is sadly extinct.
Show Me The Proof
Featured image credit: John Gould
The First “Penguin”
BirdLife International: Great Auk: Pinguinis impennis