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The tragic fate of an extinct species

Image: pengwin's wing
pengwin's wing

These massive seabirds with large, strong bills and tiny wings were well known at one time in some Northern European coastal villages. Although their wings were too small for them to fly, they made the birds fast and agile swimmers beneath the surface.

Image: pengwin's head
pengwin's head

The Gauls and Bretons called them pengwyns, meaning “white heads,” a popular name inspired by the large white spot behind the birds’ bills. The word was picked up by neighbouring cultures and became “penguin” in English and “pingouin” in French.

Image: pengwin's egg
pengwin's egg

These slow-moving and placid “pengwyns” were easily slain in their nesting colonies on the islands just off the coast. Fishermen and sailors clubbed thousands of them to death. They collected the eggs and used the adults and chicks to make soup or simply as fish bait. Their blubber was also used for lamp oil, and the feathers for stuffing mattresses and pillows.

Image: gentoo penguin
gentoo penguin

In the meantime, Antarctic explorers from Europe had brought back tales of curious web-footed animals with tiny wings, similar to the “pengwyns” that had by then become quite rare in the North Atlantic. The English called them “southern penguins,” while the French, wishing to distinguish between the two groups, named them “manchots”.

Image: stuffed great auk
stuffed great auk

In 1830, an earthquake destroyed a volcanic island off Iceland, and with it one of the last “pengwyn” colonies. Fourteen years later, after years of research, naturalists finally found the last remaining pengwyns, on an Icelandic islet: a pair and one egg. They seized the egg and carried off the two birds, which were killed fora museum.

For more information:
"Pengwin" | Descriptive records

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