Fifty years ago, I travelled to Durham University to be interviewed for a PhD studentship to work with Dr Lewis Davies on the blackly larvae (Simuliidae) living in streams in Upper Teesdale. I had always liked moorland and the project involved regular sampling of streams on the Pennines, to collect larvae and then analyse the life histories and production of the populations. Among the questions I was asked at the interview were whether I was prepared to work on my own on the fells and whether I had a driver’s licence, as the studentship came with a short wheelbase Land Rover that would allow access to some of the rougher tracks that I would need to use. I was positive about the first, but I hadn’t passed my driving test and would need to do so. Despite this answer, I was offered the post and accepted readily.
I then needed to take an intensive course of driving lessons that resulted in a pass in what was a very high-pressure test. It was such a relief as I was very keen to go to Durham and I had been impressed by the wonderful city and, especially, the people whom I had met in the Department of Zoology. It wasn’t only the people that impressed – so did the stuffed great auk that had a prominent position at the foot of the staircase in the Zoology Building. I knew that these birds had become extinct but had never before seen a museum specimen and I found it fascinating.
When I moved to Durham, the great auk became a “friend” as I had to pass it as I made my way upstairs to the common room, where we took coffee. Recently, I was intrigued to read about its history, and current location, in a paper by R.A.Baker in the Archives of Natural History . It is worth quoting from his paper:
The ”Durham” Great Auk had a long association with the University of Durham, from about 1834 to 1977 – a span of over 140 years.. ..Canon Thomas Gisborne (1758-1846), a Prebend at Durham and early benefactor, bought and presented the Great Auk to the new university.. .. When science was re-established at Durham in 1924, the Great Auk was transferred to the newly-built Dawson building and insured against fire and theft. J.J.O.Mason, the Head of Science at the time, recalled “When I came, I begged it for the new department (Science), remarking that some day we should have a Zoology department, which would be glad of it.”.. ..By the late 1970s the Head of the Department of Zoology at Durham, Professor David Barker, decided to sell the specimen.. ..Some disquiet was expressed after the sale was agreed. The sale went ahead on the agreement that the money raised would be placed in a fund “to make purchases to maintain the quality of the zoological specimens teaching collection”.. .. The auction of the “Durham” Great Auk took place at Sotheby’s in London on Wednesday 21 September 1977 and was sold to a Michael Pilkington for £4200.. .Mr Pilkington eventually decided to sell the Auk, and gave the museum [the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, where it had been on loan] the first option on it. The Glasgow Great Auk Appeal, launched the day before the 150th anniversary of its extinction, helped to raise sufficient funds for the museum to purchase the specimen for £30,000 in 1994.
It continues to be exhibited at the Kelvingrove Museum (see below), although I have not been to visit my old “friend”
What is the attraction of extinct animals? We are all familiar with the enthusiasm that many have for dinosaurs and the ammonite fossils of the Jurassic Coast, and these animals became extinct millions of years ago, overtaken by evolution and climate change. Those factors may also explain the much more recent demise of mammoths (like dinosaurs, strong favourites with the public), but very recent extinctions, like that of the great auk and some other flightless birds, were the result of human exploitation. We know that Ole Worm (1588-1654) had a live specimen from the Faroe Islands that he fed on herrings and he also had at least one stuffed great auk in his private museum . With the rise of interest by collectors in rarities, and with little defence against humans, great auks didn’t stand a chance, having already been taken as food and for their feathers [3,4]. Perhaps our fascination with them results from a sense of loss and a recognition that we have been responsible for their being wiped out - and knowing that we will never see one alive?
It is all a long way from collecting blackfly larvae in Upper Teesdale, but the Durham great auk certainly had, and continues to have, a strong appeal for me. I think it is a pity that it was sold (at what appears a knockdown price), but good to know it “lives on” in Glasgow.
 R.A.Baker (1999) Going, going, gone – the “Durham” Great Auk. Archives of Natural History 26:113-119.
 A.V.DeLozoya, D.G.García and J.Parish (2016) A great auk for the Sun King. Archives of Natural History 43:41-56.
 W.R.P.Bourne (1993) The story of the Great Auk Pinguinis impennis. Archives of Natural History 20: 257-278.
 T.R.Birkhead (1994) How collectors killed… New Scientist Issue 1227 May 28th 1994.