The Bizarre Story of Britain’s Last Great Auk

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Great Auk: Nature Picture Library, Alamy. Hat, storm: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Great Auk: Nature Picture Library, Alamy. Hat, storm: iStock.

Sailing near the remote Scottish island of St Kilda, Laughlan McKinnon sighted a strange bird napping on a rocky sea stack. It didn’t resemble most other birds he'd seen near these waters. It wasn’t a gull or a puffin. Plump and tuxedoed, it stood 3 feet tall and had comedically short 6-inch wings.

Today, a casual observer could be forgiven for confusing the bird, a great auk, for a penguin. The black-and-white creature was clumsy on land but a torpedo in the sea. It feasted on fish and had a low, croaking scream. It was flightless, monogamous, and nested in some of the world’s iciest, and most rugged, territory. In fact, the auk lent its name to modern penguins: Its scientific name was Pinguinus impennis. When early explorers discovered flightless birds in the southern hemisphere, they called the creatures penguins because of their resemblance to the great auk. (The birds, however, are biologically unrelated.)

For centuries, great auks occupied the chilly islands near Iceland, Greenland, and northern Scotland. According to Samantha Galasso at Smithsonian, an 18th century sailor wrote that Newfoundland’s Funk Island was so congested with auks that “a man could not go ashore upon those islands without boots, for otherwise they would spoil his legs, that they were entirely covered with those fowls, so close that a man could not put his foot between them.”

Which is to say the birds were easy to kill. Great auks had no fear of humans; a person could easily walk up to a bird and strangle it—and many did. In 1534, the French explorer Jacques Cartier wrote that he was able to fill two boatloads of dead auks in just half an hour. He compared the activity to packing a ship with stones.

An auk, after all, was worth more dead than alive. Locals valued its meat, which fishermen used as food and bait. Sailors coveted the oil rendered from the bird’s fat. Pillow-makers prized the auk's feathers. By the 16th century, the bird’s population had plummeted so quickly that conservation laws were written to protect it. By the 1770s, the island of St. John's in Canada had outlawed feather- and egg-collecting and penalized criminals with public floggings. But that didn’t stop people from killing the birds: As the population of great auks dropped, the profits to be made only increased.

So when Laughlan McKinnon saw an auk around July 1840, it's likely he and his two companions had money on their minds. For an unknown reason, however, they made the unusual decision to take the bird alive: One of the men, Malcolm MacDonald, approached the snoozing bird, snagged it by the neck, and lassoed its legs together. Unsurprisingly, the auk woke and began to wail. And as the bird screamed, rain began to fall.

The men decided to wait out the storm in a small hut called a bothy, and they took the bird inside with them. One day passed. Then a second. Rain and wind continued to roar, and the swelling waves prevented the men from returning to their boats and heading home. By day three, the men, still cooped up in the bothy with the bird, were likely starting to go stir crazy. Adding to their headache was the bird itself, which kept screaming whenever anybody approached it.

Finally, as the story goes, the fishermen concluded that there was only one cause for their bad luck: The bird was no bird at all. It was a storm-conjuring witch.

And there was only one way to deal with a weather-controlling witch: They had to kill it. According to one account, the men beat the auk with two large stones (others say they used sticks) until it was lifeless. Decades later, historians learned that this bird was likely the last great auk in Great Britain.

Within five years, the last breeding pair of the species would suffer a similar—though less superstitious—fate. On the island of Eldey near Iceland, a mating pair of auks was strangled to death by a group of fishermen. At that moment, the female bird had been incubating an egg. As the men struggled to kill the auk, one of the fishermen stomped on the egg with his boot, effectively crushing the future of the species along with it.

14 Cute Facts About Rabbits

iStock
iStock

Rabbits are much more than the cute, carrot-munching creatures pop culture makes them out to be. They can dig sophisticated tunnels, grow to weigh up to 22 pounds, and even eat their own poop. Here are some more facts worth knowing about the beloved mammals.

1. THEY CAN’T LIVE OFF CARROTS.

Rabbit eating carrots.
iStock

Cartoons suggest that rabbits can happily survive on a diet of carrots alone. But in the wild, rabbits don’t eat root vegetables—they’d much rather munch on greens like weeds, grasses, and clovers. That doesn’t mean you can’t give your pet some carrots as a snack from time to time, but don’t overdo it: Carrots are high in sugar and contribute to tooth decay in 11 percent of pet bunnies.

2. SOME ARE TODDLER-SIZED.

Flemish giant rabbit.
iStock

Not all rabbits are cute and tiny. Some, like the Flemish giant rabbit, grow to be downright monstrous. This rabbit breed is the world's largest, reaching 2.5 feet in length and weighing up to 22 pounds. Fortunately these giants are the gentle kind, which makes them popular pets.

3. BABY RABBITS ARE CALLED KITTENS.

Baby bunny in field.
iStock

Nope, not bunnies, technically. Another word for the young is kits. Mature females are known as does while adult males are called bucks. "Bunny," meanwhile, falls into the same category of cutesy terms as "kitty" and "doggy"—they're not scientific, but everyone will know what you mean.

4. THERE'S SOME TRUTH TO THE PHRASE "BREED LIKE RABBITS."

Two rabbits outside.
iStock

Rabbits really are a busy bunch. A rabbit is ready to start breeding at just 3 to 8 months old. Once they reach that point, they can copulate eight months out of the year every year for the rest of their 9- to 12-year lifespan. A doe's reproductive system doesn't follow cycles; instead, ovulation is triggered by intercourse. After a 30-day gestation period she'll give birth to a litter of about four to 12 kits.

5. THEY "BINKY" WHEN THEY'RE HAPPY.

Rabbit hopping outdoors.
iStock

If you spend enough time around rabbits, you may be lucky enough to witness one of the cutest behaviors in nature. A bunny will hop when it's happy and do a twist in mid-air. This adorable action has an equally adorable name: It's called a "binky."

6. THEY EAT THEIR OWN POOP.

Cute rabbit indoors.
iStock

This behavior, on the other hand, is significantly less adorable. After digesting a meal, rabbits will sometimes eat their poop and process it a second time. It may seem gross, but droppings are actually an essential part of a rabbit's diet: They even produce a special type of poop called cecotropes that are softer than their normal pellets and meant to be eaten. Rabbits have a fast-moving digestive system, and by re-digesting waste, they're able to absorb nutrients their bodies missed the first time around.

7. THEY GROOM THEMSELVES LIKE CATS.

Rabbit grooming itself.
iStock

Rabbits are remarkably hygienic. Like cats, they keep themselves clean throughout the day by licking their fur and paws. This means rabbits generally don't need to be bathed by their owners like some other pets.

8. THEY CAN'T VOMIT.

Rabbit eating grass in a field.
iStock

While a cat can cough up a hairball after a long day of self-grooming, a rabbit cannot. The rabbit digestive system is physically incapable of moving in reverse. Instead of producing hairballs, rabbits deal with swallowed fur by eating plenty of roughage that pushes it through their digestive tract.

9. THEY CAN SEE BEHIND THEM.

Rabbit in a field.
iStock

It's hard to sneak up on a rabbit: Their vision covers nearly 360 degrees, which allows them to see what's coming from behind them, above them, and from the sides without turning their heads. The trade-off is that rabbits have a small blind spot directly in front of their faces.

10. THEY ARE REALLY GOOD JUMPERS.

Rabbit hopping.
iStock

Those impressive back legs aren't just for show. Rabbits are built for evading predators in a hurry, and according to Guinness World Records, the highest rabbit jump reached 3.26 feet off the ground and the farthest reached nearly 10 feet. There are even rabbit jumping competitions where owners can show off their pets' agility.

11. THEIR TEETH NEVER STOP GROWING.

Rabbit chewing leaves.
iStock

Like human fingernails, a rabbit's teeth will keep growing if given the chance. A rabbit's diet in the wild includes a lot of gritty, tough-to-chew plant food that would eventually wear down a permanent set of teeth. With chompers that grow at a rate of up to 5 inches a year, any damage that's done to their teeth is quickly compensated for. The flip-side is that domestic rabbits who aren't fed abrasive foods can suffer from overgrown teeth that prevent them from eating.

12. THEY LIVE IN ELABORATE TUNNELS CALLED WARRENS.

Rabbit butt sticking out of burrow.
iStock

Rabbits don't end up in Wonderland when they go down the rabbit hole, but the place where they live is more complicated than you might expect. Rabbits dig complex tunnel systems, called warrens, that connect special rooms reserved for things like nesting and sleeping. The dens have multiple entrances that allow the animals to escape in a pinch, and some warrens are as large as tennis courts and extend 10 feet below the surface.

13. THEIR EARS HELP THEM STAY COOL.

Rabbit walking toward camera.
iStock

A rabbit's ears serve two main purposes. The first and most obvious is hearing: Rabbits can rotate their ears 270 degrees, allowing them to detect any threats that might be approaching from close to two miles away. The oversized ears also have the added benefit of cooling rabbits down on a hot day. More surface area means more places for body heat to escape from.

14. THEY'RE HARD TO CATCH.

Rabbit running outdoors.
iStock

If their eyes, ears, and powerful legs don't give them enough of a head start when avoiding predators, rabbits have even more tricks to rely on. The cottontail rabbit moves in a zig-zag pattern when running across an open field, making it hard to target. It also reaches a top speed of 18 mph—they really are "wascally wabbits."

Ice Age Wolf Pup and Caribou Mummies Discovered in Yukon

Government of Yukon
Government of Yukon

Officials in Canada recently announced that gold miners in Yukon territory unearthed a mummified wolf pup and caribou calf, both of which roamed the continent during the Ice Age, CBC News reports. The specimens were found preserved in permafrost in Dawson City in 2016, and researchers used carbon dating to determine that the animals are more than 50,000 years old.

While fossils from this period often turn up in the Yukon, fully intact carcasses are a lot rarer, Yukon government paleontologist Grant Zazula told CBC News. “To our knowledge, this is the only mummified Ice Age wolf ever found in the world,” Zazula said.

The caribou calf carcass—which includes the head, torso, and front limbs—still has its skin, muscle, and hair intact. It was found in an area that contains 80,000-year-old volcanic ash. Observed in a similar condition, the wolf pup still has its head, tail, paws, skin, and hair.

A caribou calf
Government of Yukon

Close-up view of the wolf club
Government of Yukon

These findings also hold special significance for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, an indigenous group in the Yukon. “The caribou has fed and clothed our people for thousands of years,” Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief Roberta Joseph said in a statement. “The wolf maintains balance within the natural world, keeping the caribou healthy. These were an amazing find, and it’s a great opportunity to work collaboratively with the Government of Yukon and our community partners.”

The Canadian Conservation Institute will be tasked with preserving the animal specimens, and the findings will be displayed in Dawson City until the end of the month. They will later be added to an exhibit at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse.

[h/t CBC]

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