Pinguinus impennis (great auk)

Pinguinus impennis the great auk or garefowl, is the 'penguin of the north'. Pinguinus impennis is the only flightless auk.

The great auk ranged from Canada to Norway, including Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Hunting was responsible for the decline and eventual extinction of the great auk. The last great auk hunt took place on 3rd June 1844, on Eldey Island off southwestern Iceland, when a breeding pair was thoughtlessly slaughtered.

Species detail

Great auk

Great auk


Pinguinus impennis is not a true penguin, however it resembled these flightless birds of the southern hemisphere with its

  • small wings
  • black back
  • white abdomen
  • upright posture

The word 'penguin' is derived from the Celtic name for the great auk.


The great auk foraged in shallow waters eating fish, crabs and plankton.

The great auk only ever came ashore in rocky offshore islands to breed. Each pair laid a single egg on bare rock.

They migrated south in the winter, and bones have been found as far south as Florida and Gibraltar.

  • Pinguinus impennis

    Find out more about the features of Pinguinus impennis and how despite its appearance it is not a true penguin.

  • Pinguinus impennis

    Discover more about the behaviour of the great auk, its breeding. feeding and migration habits.

  • Pinguinus impennis
    Distribution and habitat

    Find out more about where the habitat the great auk lived in and where in the world they were found.

  • Pinguinus impennis

    Discover more about the reason for the decline and eventual extinction of the great auk.

About the author

Lorna Steel
Dr Lorna Steel

Curator, Palaeontology Vertebrates Curation Group.

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  • Fuller, E. (1999) The Great Auk. Errol Fuller Publications, Southborough, Kent, UK. 448 pp.