How an Icelandic Bird Led to the Discovery of Human-Caused Extinction

In 1858, the great auk (Pinguinus impennis) was reported to be in serious decline. William Proctor, keeper of the bird collection at Durham University, had traveled to Iceland in 1833 and 1837, partly in order to seek out great auks, but reported that sightings were now rare in Iceland and that he had not seen any of the birds.

Later, student William Milner inquired about great auks on his travels to Iceland and was informed that none had been seen recently, though two had been caught two years earlier, in 1844. Milner’s account of his visit gave rise to a strong suspicion that the species was not only rare but vanishing.

Naturalist John Wolley took a keen interest in discussions of rare birds, and he resolved to go to Iceland with the same intention as his friends. He invited Alfred Newton, then making a name for himself as a zoologist at Cambridge University, to join him. Wolley and Newton met for the first time in Cambridge one October day in 1851, although they had corresponded for several years.

Wolley had recently passed his final examinations in medicine at the University of Edinburgh, with excellent results, but he had decided not to pursue a career as a doctor; instead, he would follow his vocation to create a great and systematic egg collection. It would eventually become one of the largest collections ever known, numbering at least ten thousand eggs. Perhaps in Iceland Wolley could acquire an egg of the rare great auk?

Newton, who was six years Wolley’s junior, had also been collecting eggs since boyhood and had kept meticulous records of the comings and goings of migratory birds. The animated letters that Wolley wrote to him during a collecting expedition in northern Scandinavia captured the younger man’s imagination and stimulated his interest in nature. To Newton, the north was an “ornithological paradise,” where rare bird species were nevertheless still to be found and the diversity of species was immense.

He and Wolley agreed that they must go to Iceland as soon as possible and seek out the great auks. When they finally set off, in 1858, their ambition was to learn as much as possible about the species during a two-month stay, during which they would visit the great auk breeding grounds on Eldey, a small island off Iceland’s southwest coast.

On the basis of what the two British naturalists learned in Iceland in 1858, Newton, who outlived his friend and preserved his legacy, would become leading figure in discussions of a new and politically volatile scientific concept: extinction.

Bad weather prevented them from even attempting to row out to Eldey. Stuck ashore, they occupied themselves with identifying the crew of the latest successful great auk hunting expeditions, interviewing as many people as possible who had seen the birds.

Wolley carefully preserved their accounts—along with much other information about the great auk—in the set of notebooks now known collectively as the Gare-Fowl Books. On the basis of what the two British naturalists learned in Iceland in 1858, Newton, who outlived his friend and preserved his legacy, would become leading figure in discussions of a new and politically volatile scientific concept: extinction.

Was it conceivable, Wolley and Newton wondered on their return to Britain, that this sizable bird, known to collectors around the world, was in critical decline as a result of human activities? Could it be erased from the book of life altogether? Was such a thing—unnatural extinction—possible?

In the early nineteenth century, most people, both lay and learned, believed that all the species of the living world had been created once and for all, that existing organisms could not vanish, and that new species could not appear. The Creation was seen as perfect; the principal role of the natural scientist was to document, describe, and classify the species created.

Today, the concept of species is essential to our understanding of extinction, but nobody, not even scholars, talked about extinction in those terms in the early nineteenth century. Species did not disappear. There was no name for the loss of a species—particularly not for a loss that might be detected and studied in the here and now.

The English noun extinction had, of course, been in use since at least the fifteenth century; it meant “annihilation.” The related verb to extinguish meant (and still means) to quench, in the context of fires, or, figuratively, to wipe out a material thing, such as a debt. Yet in the early nineteenth century, as Cambridge scholar Gillian Beer points out, the word extinction was primarily “linked to the history of landed families: a line becomes extinct and with it the family name and the succession of property and practices.”

Not until the late 1880s were extinction and species paired, and extinction became a matter of biology and governance. The species that instigated this pairing was the great auk, and it was Wolley and Newton’s 1858 expedition to Iceland that sparked this important conceptual development, adding the concept of unnatural extinction to modern language and thought.

Before unnatural extinction—the loss of a species as a result of human activities—could be understood, the idea that creatures could become extinct by any means at all needed to be accepted. Taxonomer Carl von Linné was among those to protest that such a thing was flatly impossible. “We will never believe that a species could totally vanish from the earth,” he said, and his was the prevailing viewpoint.

Many believed in the role of “place or accident” in exhibiting “varieties” (an interesting nod to evolutionary theory), but the possibility of progressively fewer species—of what we now call “extinction”—was unthinkable at the time (in 1737); life-forms, it was implied, somehow remained intact since the theological big bang.

In early manuscripts of his magnum opus, Darwin doesn’t hesitate to use terms such as “extirpation” and “annihilation.” Yet, rather than dwelling on extinction, he almost seems to avoid it in On the Origin of Species, published in November of 1859. For Darwin, extinction was inevitable, taken for granted. Natural selection would inexorably thrust some species aside: “As new species in the course of time are formed through natural selection, others will become rarer and rarer, and finally extinct. The forms which stand in closest competition with those undergoing modification and improvement, will naturally suffer most.”

The great auk was one of the first species pushed “off the cliff” by humanity, its extinction observed by scientists more-or-less in real time. It is no surprise, then, that the great auk has come to stand for the concept of extinction in museums and in the public mind around the world, often with a heavy dose of loss and guilt: lost species remind us uneasily of humanity’s predatory behavior—and of lessons that we may not yet have learned. Arguably, the extinction of the great auk was inevitable, in view of massive European hunting of the birds for their meat, feathers, and oil in the 1700s and 1800s.

Genetic research, however, published by Jessica E. Thomas and her colleagues in 2019, provides no indication that any environmental factors played a crucial role. Their sequencing of DNA from great auks from all over their historical habitats points to considerable genetic diversity; only if genetic diversity had been low would it have been difficult for the species to adapt to environmental change. The authors conclude that hunting pressure by humans alone was sufficient to lead to the extinction of the great auk.

When Wolley and Newton set off for Iceland in 1858, such an idea was unheard of. And for many years after he returned from his Iceland expedition, Alfred Newton clung to the hope of someone, somewhere, seeing a great auk alive. But at last, he had to accept that neither he, nor anyone else, would ever see one again. In 1865, he wrote, still somewhat hesitantly, that the great auk should be seen as belonging to the past.

Among the documents inserted into the Gare-Fowl Books is a copy of a letter acquired by Newton, written in Denmark in 1873. The writer says that she has inquired about drawings and documents relating to the great auk, and met with many influential people: “I met the Governor of Iceland… and asked him if there was no hope that Garefowl still might dwell within his dominion, but he said not the faintest hope was left: They are gone—extinct.” Was this declaration from the Icelandic authorities the equivalent of a death certificate—regarding the breeding population in Iceland at least?

As American historian of science Henry M. Cowles has argued, by expounding the idea of two kinds of extinction—one natural, the other due to human impact—Newton presented the possibility that declines in nature might be reversed and at-risk species saved.

Until recently, Newton’s work has been strangely silenced and undervalued. As American historian of science Henry M. Cowles has argued, by expounding the idea of two kinds of extinction—one natural, the other due to human impact—Newton presented the possibility that declines in nature might be reversed and at-risk species saved.

In such measures, Newton thought, experts in the natural sciences would surely take the lead. Influenced by his own fruitless hunt for great auks in Iceland, Newton introduced the idea that extinction is not a single event but an ongoing process—one that can be interrupted.

For these reasons, it is vital for us to attend to the historic journey of John Wolley and Alfred Newton to the Reykjanes peninsula in the southwest of Iceland in 1858. The real weight of their quest rests on something far more fundamental than simply learning the fate of a pair of large, flightless birds that produced a single, beautifully patterned egg per year. By chronicling the disappearance of the great auk from its breeding grounds off the coast of Iceland, Wolley and Newton were elucidating the perturbed relations of humans and the rest of the animal world at a time of impending mass extinction.


The Last of Its Kind: The Search for the Great Auk and the Discovery of Extinction by Gísli Pálsson is available via Princeton University Press.

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