At 30 inches (75 centimeters), the flightless Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) was the largest of the auks. It was hunted for food, as well as for down for mattresses, from at least the 8th century. It is classified as the only species in the genus Pinguinus. It was also known as “garefowl”, from the Old Norse geirfugl, or “penguin”.
Before hunted to extinction, the Great Auk could be found in great numbers on islands off eastern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Ireland and Great Britain. The last pair was killed July 3, 1844, on the island of Eldey off Iceland, though a later sighting was claimed of a live individual in 1852 off the Newfoundland Banks in Canada.
They were considered excellent swimmers, using their wings like flippers to swim underwater. Unlike other auks, however, the Great Auk could not fly, which is what made it so vulnerable to humans. The Great Auk laid only one egg each year.
One theory connects the Great Auk with the origin of the word penguin, which may have come from the Welsh phrase pen gwyn, meaning “white head”, referring originally to the Great Auk (although the head of the Great Auk was not in fact white, there was a white patch behind the beak). Later, when explorers discovered apparently similar birds in the southern hemisphere, what we now call penguins, the term was supposedly transferred to them. An alternative theory, suggested by John Latham in 1785, claims that the word penguin comes from the Latin pinguis meaning “fat”, referring to the plump appearance of the bird.
Exploitation and also natural events eventually reduced the Great Auk population to very few birds. About this time collection of the Auk and its eggs for specimens began. These highly prized trophies contributed towards the demise of the species. Today about 80 preserved skins and approximately 70 eggs are known to exist.