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The Great Auk (Alca Impennis)

Head of Hancock's specimen of the adult Great Auk © NHSN

The Great Auk, a flightless auk of the northern seas, was hunted to extinction; the last two birds of the species, it is alleged, were killed on Eldey Island, near Iceland, in 1844.

The Natural History Society of Northumbria has two rare specimens of the Great Auk in its collections, a young bird still in immature plumage and an adult bird.

The adult bird, in summer breeding plumage, was bought as a skin and stuffed by the famous North East taxidermist John Hancock. He later presented it to the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne with his complete taxidermy collection of British and foreign birds in 1884.

The mount of the immature Great Auk, is one of the earliest specimens of its kind in the world and possibly the only representative of a juvenile in existence.

It was originally in the collection of Marmaduke Tunstall (1743-1790), housed in his museum at Wycliffe Hall near Barnard Castle, where it was seen and sketched by Thomas Bewick. After Tunstall’s death the bird was sold at auction to the antiquarian George Allan of Darlington.

Part of Allan’s collection, including all of Tunstall’s birds, was purchased in 1822 by Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society. The Great Auk later passed into the collections of the Natural History Society where it remains to this day.

John Hancock re-mounted the badly stuffed bird in 1863 removing the skeleton.

Specimens of Great Auks are rare and only two other museums in the world have more specimens than the Hancock Museum.

Our Great Auk specimens are currently not on display in the Great North Museum:Hancock but can be seen in the museum stores at one of the many ‘Behind the Scenes Tours’.

Listen to Keeper of Biology Dan Gordon, Errol Fuller, Sir Matt Ridley and artist Marianne Wilde discuss how ‘Genome editing could bring back the Great Auk’ on BBC4 Natural Histories