Excerpt: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Writer Elizabeth Kolbert travels the globe investigating evidence that a mass extinction is underway.

Excerpted from THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. Published February 2014 by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth Kolbert. All rights reserved.

The Icelandic Institute of Natural History occupies a new building on a lonely hillside outside Reykjavik. The building has a tilted roof and tilted glass walls and looks a bit like the prow of a ship. It was designed as a research facility, with no public access, which means that a special appointment is needed to see any of the specimens in the institute’s collection. These specimens, as I learned on the day of my own appointment, include: a stuffed tiger, a stuffed kangaroo, and a cabinet full of stuffed birds of paradise.

The reason I’d arranged to visit the institute was to see its great auk. Iceland enjoys the dubious distinction of being the bird’s last known home, and the specimen I’d come to look at was killed somewhere in the country—no one is sure of the exact spot—in the summer of 1821. The bird’s carcass was purchased by a Danish count, Frederik Christian Raben, who had come to Iceland expressly to acquire an auk for his collection (and had nearly drowned in the attempt). Raben took the specimen home to his castle, and it remained in private hands until 1971, when it came up for auction in London. The Institute of Natural History solicited donations, and within three days Icelanders contributed the equivalent of ten thousand British pounds to buy the auk back. (One woman I spoke to, who was ten years old at the time, recalled emptying her piggy bank for the effort.) Icelandair provided two free seats for the homecoming, one for the institute’s director and the other for the boxed bird.

Guðmundur Guðmundsson, who’s now the institute’s deputy director, had been assigned the task of showing me the auk. Guðmundsson is an expert on foraminifera, tiny marine creatures that form intricately shaped shells, known as “tests.” On our way to see the bird, we stopped at his office, which was filled with boxes of little glass tubes, each containing a sampling of tests that rattled like sprinkles when I picked it up. Guðmundsson told me that in his spare time he did translating. A few years ago he had completed the first Icelandic rendering of On the Origin of Species. He’d found Darwin’s prose quite difficult—“sentences inside sentences inside sentences”—and the book, Uppruni Tegundanna, had not sold well, perhaps because so many Icelanders are fluent in English.

We made our way to the storeroom for the institute’s collection. The stuffed tiger, wrapped in plastic, looked ready to lunge at the stuffed kangaroo. The great auk—Pinguinus impennis—was standing off by itself, in a specially made Plexiglas case. It was perched on a fake rock, next to a fake egg.

As the name suggests, the great auk was a large bird; adults grew to be more than two and a half feet tall. The auk could not fly—it was one of the few flightless birds of the Northern Hemisphere—and its stubby wings were almost comically undersized for its body. The auk in the case had brown feathers on its back; probably these were black when the bird was alive but had since faded. “UV light,” Guðmundsson said gloomily. “It destroys the plumage.” The auk’s chest feathers were white, and there was a white spot just beneath each eye. The bird had been stuffed with its most distinctive feature—its large, intricately grooved beak—tipped slightly into the air. This lent it a look of mournful hauteur.

Guðmundsson explained that the great auk had been on display in Reykjavik until 2008, when the institute was restructured by the Icelandic government. At that point, another agency was supposed to create a new home for the bird, but various mishaps, including Iceland’s financial crisis, had prevented this from happening, which is why Count Raben’s auk was sitting on its fake rock in the corner of the storeroom. On the rock, there was a painted inscription, which Guðmundsson translated for me: the bird who is here for show was killed in 1821. it is one of the few great auks that still exist.

In its heyday, which is to say, before humans figured out how to reach its nesting grounds, the great auk ranged from Norway over to Newfoundland and from Italy to Florida, and its population probably numbered in the millions. When the first settlers arrived in Iceland from Scandinavia, great auks were so common that they were regularly eaten for dinner, and their remains have been found in the tenth-century equivalent of household trash. While I was in Reykjavik, I visited a museum built over the ruins of what’s believed to be one of the most ancient structures in Iceland—a longhouse constructed out of strips of turf. According to one of the museum’s displays, the great auk was “easy prey” for Iceland’s medieval inhabitants. In addition to a pair of auk bones, the display featured a video re-creation of an early encounter between man and bird. In the video, a shadowy figure crept along a rocky shore toward a shadowy auk. When he drew close enough, the figure pulled out a stick and clubbed the animal over the head. The auk responded with a cry somewhere between a honk and a grunt. I found the video grimly fascinating and watched it play through a half a dozen times. Creep, clobber, squawk. Repeat.

As best as can be determined, great auks lived much as penguins do. In fact, great auks were the original “penguins.” They were called this—the etymology of “penguin” is obscure and may or may not be traced to the Latin pinguis, meaning “fat”—by European sailors who encountered them in the North Atlantic. Later, when subsequent generations of sailors met similar-colored flightless birds in the Southern Hemisphere, they used the same name, which led to much confusion, since auks and penguins belong to entirely different families. (Penguins constitute their own family, while auks are members of the family that includes puffins and guillemots; genetic analysis has shown that razorbills are the great auk’s closest living relatives.)

Like penguins, great auks were fantastic swimmers—eyewitness accounts attest to the birds’ “astonishing velocity” in the water—and they spent most of their lives at sea. But during breeding season, in May and June, they waddled ashore in huge numbers, and here lay their vulnerability. Native Americans clearly hunted the great auk—one ancient grave in Canada was found to contain more than a hundred great auk beaks—as did paleolithic Europeans: great auk bones have been found at archaeological sites in, among other places, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Italy, and Gibraltar. By the time the first settlers got to Iceland, many of its breeding sites had already been plundered and its range was probably much reduced. Then came the wholesale slaughter.

Lured by the rich cod fishery, Europeans began making regular voyages to Newfoundland in the early sixteenth century. Along the way, they encountered a slab of pinkish granite about fifty acres in area, which rose just above the waves. In the spring, the slab was covered with birds, standing, in a manner of speaking, shoulder to shoulder. Many of these were gannets and guillemots; the rest were great auks. The slab, about forty miles off Newfoundland’s northeast coast, became known as the Isle of Birds or, in some accounts, Penguin Island; today it is known as Funk Island. Toward the end of a long transatlantic journey, when provisions were running low, fresh meat was prized, and the ease with which auks could be picked off the slab was soon noted. In an account from 1534, the French explorer Jacques Cartier wrote that some of the Isle of Birds’ inhabitants were “as large as geese.”

They are always in the water, not being able to fly in the air, inasmuch as they have only small wings . . . with which . . . they move as quickly along the water as the other birds fly through the air. And these birds are so fat it is marvellous. In less than half an hour we filled two boats full of them, as if they had been stones, so that besides them which we did not eat fresh, every ship did powder and salt five or six barrels full of them.

A British expedition that landed on the island a few years later found it “full of great foules.” The men drove a “great number of the foules” into their ships and pronounced the results to be quite tasty—“very good and nourishing meat.” A 1622 account by a captain named Richard Whitbourne describes great auks being driven onto boats “by hundreds at a time as if God had made the innocency of so poor a creature to become such an admirable instrument for the sustenation of Man.”

Over the next several decades, other uses for the great auk were found besides “sustenation.” (As one chronicler observed, “the great auks of Funk Island were exploited in every way that human ingenuity could devise.”) Auks were used as fish bait, as a source of feathers for stuffing mattresses, and as fuel. Stone pens were erected on Funk Island—vestiges of these are still visible today—and the birds were herded into the enclosures until someone could find time to butcher them. Or not. According to an English seaman named Aaron Thomas, who sailed to Newfoundland on the HMS Boston:

If you come for their Feathers you do not give yourself the trouble of killing them, but lay hold of one and pluck the best of the Feathers. You then turn the poor Penguin adrift, with his skin half naked and torn off, to perish at his leisure.

There are no trees on Funk Island, and hence nothing to burn. This led to another practice chronicled by Thomas.

You take a kettle with you into which you put a Penguin or two, you kindle a fire under it, and this fire is absolutely made of the unfortunate Penguins themselves. Their bodys being oily soon produce a Flame.

It’s been estimated that when Europeans first landed at Funk Island, they found as many as a hundred thousand pairs of great auks tending to a hundred thousand eggs. (Probably great auks produced only one egg a year; these were about five inches long and speckled, Jackson Pollock–like, in brown and black.) Certainly the island’s breeding colony must have been a large one to persist through more than two centuries of depredation. By the late seventeen hundreds, though, the birds’ numbers were in sharp decline. The feather trade had become so lucrative that teams of men were spending the entire summer on Funk, scalding and plucking. In 1785, George Cartwright, an English trader and explorer, observed of these teams: “The destruction which they have made is incredible.” If a stop were not soon put to their efforts, he predicted, the great auk would soon “be diminished to almost nothing.”

Whether the teams actually managed to kill off every last one of the island’s auks or whether the slaughter simply reduced the colony to the point that it became vulnerable to other forces is unclear. (Diminishing population density may have made survival less likely for the remaining individuals, a phenomenon that’s known as the Allee effect.) In any event, the date that’s usually given for the extirpation of the great auk from North America is 1800. Some thirty years later, while working on The Birds of America, John James Audubon traveled to Newfoundland in search of great auks to paint from life. He couldn’t find any, and for his illustration had to make do with a stuffed bird from Iceland that had been acquired by a dealer in London. In his description of the great auk, Audubon wrote that it was “rare and accidental on the banks of Newfoundland” and that it was “said to breed on a rock on that island,” a curious contradiction since no breeding bird can be said to be “accidental.”

Once the Funk Island birds had been salted, plucked, and deep-fried into oblivion, there was only one sizable colony of great auks left in the world, on an island called the Geirfuglasker, or great auk skerry, which lay about thirty miles off southwestern Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula. Much to the auk’s misfortune, a volcanic eruption destroyed the Geirfuglasker in 1830. This left the birds one solitary refuge, a speck of an island known as Eldey. By this point, the great auk was facing a new threat: its own rarity. Skins and eggs were avidly sought by gentlemen, like Count Raben, who wanted to fill out their collections. It was in the service of such enthusiasts that the very last known pair of auks was killed on Eldey in 1844.

Before setting out for Iceland, I’d decided that I wanted to see the site of the auk’s last stand. Eldey is only about ten miles off the Reykjanes Peninsula, which is just south of Reykjavik. But getting out to the island proved to be way more difficult to arrange than I’d imagined. Everyone I contacted in Iceland told me that no one ever went there. Eventually, a friend of mine who’s from Iceland got in touch with his father, who’s a minister in Reykjavik, who contacted a friend of his, who runs a nature center in a tiny town on the peninsula called Sandgerði. The head of the nature center, Reynir Sveinsson, in turn, found a fisherman, Halldór Ármannsson, who said he’d be willing to take me, but only if the weather was fair; if it was rainy or windy, the trip would be too dangerous and nausea-inducing, and he wouldn’t want to risk it.

Fortunately, the weather on the day we’d fixed turned out to be splendid. I met Sveinsson at the nature center, which features an exhibit on a French explorer, Jean-Baptiste Charcot, who died when his ship, the infelicitously named Pourquoi-Pas, sunk off Sandgerði in 1936. We walked over to the harbor and found Ármannsson loading a chest onto his boat, the Stella. He explained that inside the chest was an extra life raft. “Regulations,” he shrugged. Ármannsson had also brought along his fishing partner and a cooler filled with soda and cookies. He seemed pleased to be making a trip that didn’t involve cod.

We motored out of the harbor and headed south, around the Reykjanes Peninsula. It was clear enough that we could see the snow-covered peak of Snæfellsjökull, more than sixty miles away. (To English speakers, Snæfellsjökull is probably best known as the spot where in Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth the hero finds a tunnel through the globe.) Eldey, being much shorter than Snæfellsjökull, was not yet visible. Sveinsson explained that Eldey’s name means “fire island.” He said that although he’d spent his entire life in the area, he’d never before been out to it. He’d brought along a fancy camera and was shooting pictures more or less continuously.

As Sveinnson snapped away, I chatted with Ármannsson inside the Stella’s small cabin. I was intrigued to see that he had dramatically different colored eyes, one blue and one hazel. Usually, he told me, he fished for cod using a long line that extended six miles and trailed twelve thousand hooks. The baiting of the hooks was his father’s job, and it took nearly two days. A good catch could weigh more than seven metric tons. Often Ármannsson slept on the Stella, which was equipped with a microwave and two skinny berths.

After a while, Eldey appeared on the horizon. The island looked like the base of an enormous column, or like a giant pedestal waiting for an even more gigantic statue. When we got within maybe a mile, I could see that the top of the island, which from a distance appeared flat, was actually tilted at about a ten-degree angle. We were approaching from the shorter end, so we could look across the entire surface. It was white and appeared to be rippling. As we got closer, I realized that the ripples were birds—so many that they seemed to blanket the island—and when we got even closer, I could see that the birds were gannets—elegant creatures with long necks, cream-colored heads, and tapered beaks. Sveinsson explained that Eldey was home to one of the world’s largest colonies of northern gannets—some thirty thousand pairs. He pointed out a pyramid-like structure atop the island. This was a platform for a webcam that Iceland’s environmental agency had set up. It was supposed to stream a live feed of the gannets to bird-watchers, but it had not functioned as planned.

“The birds do not like this camera,” Sveinsson said. “So they fly over it and shit on it.” The guano from thirty thousand gannet pairs has given the island what looks like a coating of vanilla frosting.

Because of the gannets, and perhaps also because of the island’s history, visitors are not allowed to step onto Eldey without special (and hard-to-obtain) permits. When I first learned this, I was disappointed, but when we got right up to the island and I saw the way the sea beat against the cliffs, I felt relieved.

The last people to see great auks alive were around a dozen Icelanders who made the trip to Eldey by rowboat. They set out one evening in June 1844, rowed through the night, and reached the island the following morning. With some difficulty, three of the men managed to clamber ashore at the only possible landing spot: a shallow shelf of rock that extends from the island to the northeast. (A fourth man who was supposed to go with them refused to on the grounds that it was too dangerous.) By this point the island’s total auk population, probably never very numerous, appears to have consisted of a single pair of birds and one egg. On catching sight of the humans, the birds tried to run, but they were too slow. Within minutes, the Icelanders had captured the auks and strangled them. The egg, they saw, had been cracked, presumably in the course of the chase, so they left it behind. Two of the men were able to jump back into the boat; the third had to be hauled through the waves with a rope.

The details of the great auks’ last moments, including the names of the men who killed the birds—Sigurður Iselfsson, Ketil Ketilsson, and Jón Brandsson—are known because fourteen years later, in the summer of 1858, two British naturalists traveled to Iceland in search of auks. The older of these, John Wolley, was a doctor and an avid egg collector; the younger, Alfred Newton, was a fellow at Cambridge and soon to be the university’s first professor of zoology. The pair spent several weeks on the Reykjanes Peninsula, not far from the site of what is now Iceland’s international airport, and during that time, they seem to have talked to just about everyone who had ever seen an auk, or even just heard about one, including several of the men who’d made the 1844 expedition. The pair of birds that had been killed in that outing, they discovered, had been sold to a dealer for the equivalent of about nine pounds. The birds’ innards had been sent to the Royal Museum in Copenhagen; no one could say what had happened to the skins. (Subsequent detective work has traced the skin of the female to an auk now on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.)

Wolley and Newton hoped to get out to Eldey themselves. Wretched weather prevented them. “Boats and men were engaged, and stores laid in, but not a single opportunity occurred when a landing would have been practicable,” Newton would later write. “It was with heavy hearts that we witnessed the season wearing away.”

Wolley died shortly after the pair returned to England. For Newton, the experience of the trip would prove to be life-altering. He concluded that the auk was gone—“for all practical purposes therefore we may speak of it as a thing of the past”—and he developed what one biographer referred to as a “peculiar attraction” to “extinct and disappearing faunas.” Newton realized that the birds that bred along Britain’s long coast were also in danger; he noted that they were being gunned down for sport in great numbers.

“The bird that is shot is a parent,” he observed in an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. “We take advantage of its most sacred instincts to waylay it, and in depriving the parent of life, we doom the helpless offspring to the most miserable of deaths, that by hunger. If this is not cruelty, what is?” Newton argued for a ban on hunting during breeding season, and his lobbying resulted in one of the first laws aimed at what today would be called wildlife protection: the Act for the Preservation of Sea Birds.

As it happens, Darwin’s first paper on natural selection appeared in print just as Newton was returning home from Iceland. The paper, in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, had—with Lyell’s help—been published in a rush soon after Darwin had learned that a young naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace was onto a similar idea. (A paper by Wallace appeared in the same issue of the Journal.) Newton read Darwin’s essay very soon after it came out, staying up late into the night to finish it, and he immediately became a convert. “It came to me like the direct revelation of a higher power,” he later recalled, “and I awoke next morning with the consciousness that there was an end of all the mystery in the simple phrase, ‘Natural Selection.’ ” He had, he wrote to a friend, developed a case of “pure and unmitigated Darwinism.” A few years later, Newton and Darwin became correspondents—at one point Newton sent Darwin a diseased partridge’s foot that he thought might be of interest to him—and eventually the two men paid social calls on each other.

Whether the subject of the great auk ever came up in their conversations is unknown. It is not mentioned in Newton and Darwin’s surviving correspondence, nor does Darwin allude to the bird or its recent demise in any of his other writings. But Darwin had to be aware of human-caused extinction. In the Galápagos, he had personally witnessed, if not exactly a case of extinction in action, then something very close to it.

Darwin’s visit to the archipelago took place in the fall of 1835, nearly four years into the voyage of the Beagle. On Charles Island—now Floreana—he met an Englishman named Nicholas Lawson, who was the Galápagos’s acting governor as well as the warden of a small, rather miserable penal colony. Lawson was full of useful information. Among the facts he related to Darwin was that on each of the islands in the Galápagos the tortoises had different-shaped shells. On this basis, Lawson claimed that he could “pronounce from which island any tortoise may have been brought.” Lawson also told Darwin that the tortoises’ days were numbered. The islands were frequently visited by whaling ships, which carried the huge beasts off as portable provisions. Just a few years earlier, a frigate visiting Charles Island had left with two hundred tortoises stowed in its hold. As a result, Darwin noted in his diary, “the numbers have been much reduced.” By the time of the Beagle’s visit, tortoises had become so scarce on Charles Island that Darwin, it seems, did not see a single one. Lawson predicted that Charles’s tortoise, known today by the scientific name Chelonoidis elephantopus, would be entirely gone within twenty years. In fact, it probably disappeared in fewer than ten. (Whether Chelonoidis elephantopus was a distinct species or a subspecies is still a matter of debate.)

Darwin’s familiarity with human-caused extinction is also clear from On the Origin of Species. In one of the many passages in which he heaps scorn on the catastrophists, he observes that animals inevitably become rare before they become extinct: “we know this has been the progress of events with those animals which have been exterminated, either locally or wholly, through man’s agency.” It’s a brief allusion and, in its brevity, suggestive. Darwin assumes that his readers are familiar with such “events” and already habituated to them. He himself seems to find nothing remarkable or troubling about this. But human-caused extinction is of course troubling for many reasons, some of which have to do with Darwin’s own theory, and it’s puzzling that a writer as shrewd and self-critical as Darwin shouldn’t have noticed this.

In the Origin, Darwin drew no distinction between man and other organisms. As he and many of his contemporaries recognized, this equivalence was the most radical aspect of his work. Humans, just like any other species, were descended, with modification, from more ancient forebears. Even those qualities that seemed to set people apart—language, wisdom, a sense of right and wrong—had evolved in the same manner as other adaptive traits, such as longer beaks or sharper incisors. At the heart of Darwin’s theory, as one of his biographers has put it, is “the denial of humanity’s special status.”

And what was true of evolution should also hold for extinction, since according to Darwin, the latter was merely a side effect of the former. Species were annihilated, just as they were created, by “slow-acting and still existing causes,” which is to say, through competition and natural selection; to invoke any other mechanism was nothing more than mystification. But how, then, to make sense of cases like the great auk or the Charles Island tortoise or, to continue the list, the dodo or the Steller’s sea cow? These animals had obviously not been done in by a rival species gradually evolving some competitive advantage. They had all been killed off by the same species, and all quite suddenly—in the case of the great auk and the Charles Island tortoise over the course of Darwin’s own lifetime. Either there had to be a separate category for human-caused extinction, in which case people really did deserve their “special status” as a creature outside of nature, or space in the natural order had to be made for cataclysm, in which case, Cuvier—distressingly—was right.