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.

The Horrors of Anglerfish Mating

Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

When you think of an anglerfish, you probably think of something like the creature above: Big mouth. Gnarly teeth. Lure bobbing from its head. Endless nightmares. 

During the 19th century, when scientists began to discover, describe, and classify anglerfish from a particular branch of the anglerfish family tree—the suborder Ceratioidei—that’s what they thought of, too. The problem was that they were only seeing half the picture. The specimens that they were working with were all female, and they had no idea where the males were or what they looked like. Researchers sometimes found some other fish that seemed to be related based on their body structure, but they lacked the fearsome maw and lure typical of ceratioids and were much smaller—sometimes only as long as 6 or 7 millimeters—and got placed into separate taxonomic groups.

It wasn’t until the 1920s—almost a full century after the first ceratioid was entered into the scientific record—that things started to become a little clearer. In 1922, Icelandic biologist Bjarni Saemundsson discovered a female ceratioid with two of these smaller fish attached to her belly by their snouts. He assumed it was a mother and her babies, but was puzzled by the arrangement.

“I can form no idea of how, or when, the larvae, or young, become attached to the mother. I cannot believe that the male fastens the egg to the female,” he wrote. “This remains a puzzle for some future researchers to solve.”

When Saemundsson kicked the problem down the road, it was Charles Tate Regan, working at the British Museum of Natural History in 1924, who picked it up. Regan also found a smaller fish attached to a female ceratioid. When he dissected it, he realized it wasn’t a different species or the female angler’s child. It was her mate.

The “missing” males had been there all along, just unrecognized and misclassified, and Regan and other scientists, like Norwegian zoologist Albert Eide Parr, soon figured out why the male ceratioids looked so different. They don’t need lures or big mouths and teeth because they don’t hunt, and they don’t hunt because they have the females. The ceratioid male, Regan wrote, is “merely an appendage of the female, and entirely dependent on her for nutrition.” In other words, a parasite.

When ceratioid males go looking for love, they follow a species-specific pheromone to a female, who will often aid their search further by flashing her bioluminescent lure. Once the male finds a suitable mate, he bites into her belly and latches on until his body fuses with hers. Their skin joins together, and so do their blood vessels, which allows the male to take all the nutrients he needs from his host/mate’s blood. The two fish essentially become one.

With his body attached to hers like this, the male doesn't have to trouble himself with things like seeing or swimming or eating like a normal fish. The body parts he doesn’t need anymore—eyes, fins, and some internal organs—atrophy, degenerate, and wither away, until he’s little more than a lump of flesh hanging from the female, taking food from her and providing sperm whenever she’s ready to spawn.

Extreme size differences between the sexes and parasitic mating aren’t found in all anglerfish. Throughout the other suborders, there are males that are free-swimming their whole lives, that can hunt on their own and that only attach to the females temporarily to reproduce before moving along. For deep-sea ceratioids that might only rarely bump into each other in the abyss, though, the weird mating ritual is a necessary adaptation to keep mates close at hand and ensure that there will always be more little anglerfish. And for us, it’s something to both marvel and cringe at, a reminder that the natural world is often as strange as any fiction we can imagine.

Naturalist William Beebe put it nicely in 1938, writing, “But to be driven by impelling odor headlong upon a mate so gigantic, in such immense and forbidding darkness, and willfully eat a hole in her soft side, to feel the gradually increasing transfusion of her blood through one’s veins, to lose everything that marked one as other than a worm, to become a brainless, senseless thing that was a fish—this is sheer fiction, beyond all belief unless we have seen the proof of it.”

This Automatic Fetch Machine Will Keep Your Dog Occupied When You Don't Have Time to Play

iFetch
iFetch

Every dog owner knows that it's impossible to keep up with a pooch that's always looking to play. But if you want to keep them active while still having time for yourself, there's the iFetch, a toy that will automatically throw tennis balls, allowing your canine to play fetch whenever they please.

You can find the iFetch Original, which is ideal for small or medium dogs, on Amazon for $115. The Original can either be charged with an AC adapter or run on six C batteries, both of which are included. You can adjust the settings on the iFetch to throw the ball 10, 20, or 30 feet, making it perfect for indoor or outdoor play. Once it's charged and the distance is set, let your canine drop a tennis ball into the machine and it will take care of the rest.

If you have a large dog, look for the iFetch Too, which is available on Amazon for $200. This model has a rechargeable battery that can last up to 300 throws. This model can launch the ball 10, 24, or 40 feet, and it also comes with a custom option, so you’ll find room for your dog to play no matter how much space is available.

If your dog loves their new toy, but you don't love finding slobbery tennis balls around the house, check out the company’s medium- and small-size slobber-proof balls.

It may take time for your canine to learn how to use the toy, but the company has some training tips from Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer. To start, it's recommended that your dog knows the “drop it” command. If they don’t, check out their training tips here. After your dog has mastered that command, the company has plenty of tricks, such as keeping training sessions short and ending them on a positive note. For more ideas, check out their page.

Once you set up your iFetch and watch your furry friend run back and forth, you may start to wonder why they like fetch so much. According to research on the subject, when dogs exercise, neurotransmitters stimulate reward regions in their brain, which is much like when humans experience a "runner's high."

If you happen to notice your canine seems particularly athletic while they are chasing the ball back and forth, check out these other sports they can play.

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