The blue marble

There are no penguins in the Arctic: Chronicle of an extinction

Specimen of Pinguinus impugns kept at the Nature Center in Nuuk, Greenland. Carlos M. Duarte

A film of penguin cartoons, The Penguins of Madagascar, will possibly be the blockbuster this Christmas. In this film the penguins, of course, from the southern hemisphere, receive help in their task of saving the world from a team of Arctic animals.

The script is supported by the known fact that there are no penguins in the Arctic, so the team of Arctic animals includes polar bears and wolfs but no penguins. But was this always the case?

The term “penguin” derives from an Arctic species, whose scientific name is Pinguinus impennis, know as the Great auk. This bird was distributed from temperate latitudes in the North Atlantic to the Arctic. I had the chance to see a stuffed specimen in the headquarters of the Institute of Nature in Nuuk, Greenland. It was a seabird of great stature, exceeding 50 cm, and, like penguins in the Southern Hemisphere, flightless and very agile in the water but extremely clumsy on land and therefore highly vulnerable to hunters and those who stole their eggs from their nests.

The Great auk became extinct in 1844 due to hunting, poaching of eggs and the desire of museums and collectors to get hold of one of the last remaining specimens to increase the value of their collections. It was only then that the assertion that no penguins in the Arctic became tragically true. And I say tragically because the extinction of a species due to human stupidity is certainly an irreparable tragedy often due to the most absolute ignorance. A tragedy requires an unhappy ending, and there is indeed no turning back from a species extinction.

Reading literature on changes in the Arctic for a science project in which I am involved I came across a description of the extinction of the Great auk by the death of the last pair of animals known that I share with readers of The Conversation as an example of the dramatic and frustrating irreversible consequences of human ignorance. The Swede ornithologist Sven-Axel Bengston included in his 1984 article on the extinction of Great auk excerpts from the diary of Mr. J Wolley where he describes how a group of Icelanders landed on Edley, in SW Iceland, between June 2 and 5, 1844, to hunt down the last two specimens of Great auk and also destroy their last eggs. The passage reads:

Upon climbing to the top, men saw two giant auks among a large group of seabirds and immediately began to chase them. The giant auks showed no intention of rejecting the intruders, but immediately ran to the edge of the cliff with their erect heads and small outstretched wings. They did not issue any sound alarm and moved in small steps no faster than a man can walk. Jon Brandsson cornered one bird and took it. Signurdr Islefsson and Ketil Ketilson chased another bird and cornered it against the cliff, many feet above the water. After capturing it, Ketil Ketilson walked back to the colony and saw a Great auk egg on the floor and when he took it he found it was broken.”

These two birds, the last specimens of Great auk, were sold to a merchant with their bodies and organs ending in the collection of the Museum of Zoology, University of Copenhagen, where they are still preserved in formalin.

Reading this passage threw me into a deep sadness and melancholy, not only on the finding that ignorance, brutality and greed led to the extinction of Great auk, but because I could not reject the idea that the same or similar incident has happened again in the XXI century, and may be probably happening right now. Australia has been the scenario of many documented extinctions, as half of all mammal species that have been lost went extinct in Australia. Most of these extinctions, involving small marsupials, were largely due to the unnecessary introduction of the cat and the fox by european colonizers, again a case for tragic stupidity. These recent extinctions followed those of a marsupial megafauna occurring shortly after the colonization of Australia by humans, likely driven by the combination of hunting and climatic oscillations.

Unfortunately, the instinct of killing other living beings, including those in our own species, remains deeply rooted in humans. In fact, the very high rates of species extinctions, largely due to the destruction of habitat, has led the scientific community to assert that we are immersed in the sixth great extinction, one that is not caused by disasters but by ignorance and the enormous human capacity and will to destroy species.

Relaxing this summer after a long free dive admiring marine life in the still unspoiled north coast of Menorca Island, in Spain, I watched how three kids, possibly between 7 and 10 years old, captured and killed crabs, sea urchins and starfish and lamented not being able to do the same with the fish that they failed to catch. All of this happened under the indifference of their parents, laying on a rock near the place of the massacre. The excitement of these children for the capture and death of whatever marine animals fell into their hands brought me to my childhood memories, when I shared the same excitement in catching all kinds of marine animals. Provided humans have engaged in seafood and shellfish collection for over 250,000 years, predation on marine life maybe an innate instinct. However, as a personal observation I believe that such instinct of destruction maybe more widespread among boys than girls, characteristically more respectful with marine life, possibly resulting from early gender bias in education.

While the abuse or killing of animals may be an innate instinct in children, it is the duty of parents and educators to redirect their fascination and excitement for marine life away from the torture and death of the animals to an interest on observation and understanding of their ecology and behavior as a way towards building respect.

The passage on the demise of the last Great auks also identifies a zoology museum as the ultimate fate for the specimens. Indeed, the scientific community of biologists or ecologists is no stranger either to the desire of capturing and killing specimens to be preserved in collections or to be dissected and studied, even when it involves damage to vulnerable and protected species. Many extinct species can only be observed in scientific collections in museums world wide, whose value is enhanced by the fact that they display extinct species or subspecies. I cannot help but wonder if some of these extinctions occurred precisely to nurture such collections, as was clearly the case in the case of the Great auk.

Specimen of Pinguinus impennis kept at the Nature Center in Nuuk, Greenland. Carlos M. Duarte

Today research with animals involves strict processes of animal ethics approvals, which are particularly restrictive in the case of vulnerable and endangered species. These are also protected by legislation. However, I believe that early education on respect for life and diversity, plant and animal, by parents and professional educators is the sole guarantee that irreversible losses, such as the brutal and non-sense hunting of the last Great auks, should not occur in the future.

The importance of appreciating and valuing diversity extends well beyond the preservation of animal and plant life to be also a key underpinning of healthy multicultural and multiethnic societies. This is, unfortunately, not the goal inspiring the recent policy changes regarding immigration, which, as a temporary immigrant to Australia myself, sadden me deeply. Australia will benefit, in building a healthy society, from a greater emphasis on the value of diversity, animal and human, in its education system.