Extinction: Great Auk, the Ocean Master

The original penguin to which all others are compared, the Great Auk was a remarkably powerful sea bird with the most bone-chilling extinction story I’ve ever heard.

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Episode Transcript

Stan Rachootin: The giant auk is sort of like a giant flightless puffin.

Kieran Suckling: It’s a very large bird. It’s three feet tall, black and white, a very dramatically colored with a white eyepatch during part of the year. It would molt and lose that layer, but had that white eyepatch during part of the year, but with these very little wings on this tall body, and very robust, strong looking creature, and this very powerful, stout, hooked beak. In fact, some of the early names for it, were spearfish. The Norse name for it was gejrfugl, which means “spearfish”.

Lucas: Welcome to Making a Monster: Extinction. This is the companion podcast to Book of Extinction, a monster manual of animals lost to the natural world but given a second life for Dungeons & Dragons. Natural history is already a part of the DNA of fantasy games – many of our favorite monsters began as tall tales of exotic animals. Bringing extinct species into D&D is the beast way tabletop gamers can honor their memory and move people toward action in the climate crisis and accelerating mass extinction.

In this episode, we discover the great auk, the garefowl, what the Inuit called isarukitsoq and New Englanders called “The Wobble”, and turn it into a D&D monster. If you want to follow along with this build, you can go to scintilla.studio/extinction right now to download a digital preview of the book, which includes a stat block for the real great auk as well as the magical version we’ll be creating at the end of the show.

One note before we get started. I apologize in advance if I mispronounce any words in this episode, especially those from native languages; I have only seen them in print and not heard them spoken. If you have correct or alternate pronunciations, please contact me using the link in the show notes to let me know.

This episode has two guides to the natural world. The first is Stan Rachootin, professor emeritus of biological sciences at Mount Holyoke University, giving a tour of the Beneski Museum of Natural History. The second is new to the show:

Kieran Suckling: My name is Kieran Suckling, and I am the Executive Director and Founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, which is an endangered species protection group that mostly works here in the U.S., but also internationally. And we try to save all species great and small from butterflies and insects to polar bears and wolves, uh, keep them alive, and to end the mass extinction crisis that’s been sweeping over this planet for the last 500 years. And we do that primarily through, litigation, uh, suing corporations that are killing endangered species, but very often suing state and federal governments, which are supposed to be enforcing laws to protect them, but often often fail.

Lucas: So let’s go back to a time before the eighth century, when the great auk had populations in the millions and was an important cultural and agricultural icon for native cultures in Newfoundland and Scandinavia.

The Great Auk in its Prime

Stan Rachootin: The giant auk lived all around a lot of the Northern hemisphere,

Kieran Suckling: When nesting in Northwest Europe, they nested in very large numbers. So there would be like thousands of them covering, this rocky area together, making a, you know, a cacophonous noise.

It did not fly because of its tiny wings but it was most at home in the water and it would swim very rapidly, very agile, and would catch fish with this powerful beak and, and consume them.

Lucas: Great Auks were perhaps the greatest seabird in the ocean, and the worst bird anywhere else. They were flightless, they could run no faster than a human can walk, and they could hardly climb at all. The two months of the year great auk nesting pairs spent on land to raise that year’s single chick made them incredibly vulnerable. The species survived by choosing nesting sites that were nearly impossible for anything but a great auk to reach.

Kieran Suckling: It was such a good swimmer that to get on land. It would, it would live in these areas where, um, you know, rocks would sort of drop straight into the water and getting up onto these rocks would not be necessarily an easy thing to do with waves splashing, but it could accelerate so fast through the water, it would just shoot out of the water, and then land on, on the rocks. And so very, you know, dramatic powerful animal, but we don’t, uh come across such large birds, very often.

And also birds that are so, so robust. You know, you think it was delicate little birds and delicate little songs. And this was a very robust creature,

Lucas: but the intersection of that Venn diagram between habitable and inaccessible shrank as warming seas pushed the creature farther and farther north and human seafaring techniques became more and more advanced. At first, the great auk could only be taken by the most committed hunters, like the native Beothuk people of Newfoundland. The Beothuk invented a special crescent shaped canoe to hunt great auks on an island they called Apponath. That same island would be called Funk Island by the European sailors who reached it in the 1600s.

Kieran Suckling: precisely because it lived in such remote areas. It did not encounter humans very often. It did not encounter mammalian predators very often. They wouldn’t be preyed upon by polar bears. But so for that reason, it was not afraid of humans. Uh, and this was ultimately it’s, um, downfall, because humans could approach them, capture them, kill them very easily, despite how big they were, because they just had no, no fear of humans.

 In fact, there’s descriptions that people would, just pluck their feathers, that they first were captured for feathers. A lot of birds were. The millinary business was huge at one point. So feathers were collected mostly for women’s hats, and imported to Europe, America as well, but they would just pull the feathers out of the bird, um, without necessarily even killing it at first.

And then it would die from exposure without the protection of its, of its feathers. Um, it was quite remarkable.

Stan Rachootin: But sealers, people who hunted seals, found that these were easier to hunt than seals. Bash them over the head, vast amounts of fat, you could render them very quickly and use the fat for all sorts of things and sell it. And so their populations crashed a lot.

Lucas: In 1794 a sailor on HMS Boston named Aaron Thomas described how this was done:

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 leasure. This is not a very humane method but it is the common practize. While you abide on this island you are in the constant practice of horrid cruelties for you not only skin them Alive, but you burn them Alive also to cook their Bodies with. 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 bodies being oily soon produce a Flame; there is no wood on the island.

Stan Rachootin: Then as they were getting very, very rare at the beginning of the 19th century, there was a, you know, in terms of people’s fascination with natural history, a whole bunch of people all over Europe wanting to collect the eggs of every single European bird.

And this was the rarest European bird. And so “eggers” would go out to find giant auk eggs and sell them for a vast amount of money. And that put a lot of pressure on them. And then, in fact, there was a whole monograph portraits of all the remaining great auk eggs, you know, their, their eggs about this big, and they have some brown, dark brown mottling on them.

Kieran Suckling: they’d lay one egg at a time, very large brown mottled egg, um, and then fiercely defend that, that egg,

Stan Rachootin: And you wouldn’t necessarily want a beautiful hand, hand colored book of poor pictures of each egg, but there is, that book exists by Alfred Newton of Cambridge University. Um, yes, of course.

The Last Great Auk

Lucas: The last nesting colony of great auks lived on an island off the coast of Iceland named Geirfuglasker or “Garefowl Rock.” A five-acre islet at the end of a lava-rock skerrie, Gerifuglasker was protected by howling winds, rough seas, and inaccessible terrain and seemed like it could be a permanent refuge for the auk. It blew up in 1830. A volcanic eruption sank the island beneath the sea, causing the auks to move to nearby Eldey Island.

On June 3, 1844, a four-man expedition visited Eldey Island to find the last living pair of auks for a foreign merchant. One of them refused to make the landing in what he called “Satan’s weather”, so three fishermen, Jón Brandsson, Sigurður Ísleifsson and Ketill Ketilsson entered the island, caught and killed the last two great auks and smashed their egg.

We have Sigurður’s first hand account, given to Great Auk specialist John Wolley some years later:

They walked slowly. Jón Brandsson crept up with his arms open. The bird that Jón got went into a corner but [mine] was going to the edge of the cliff. It walked like a man … but moved its feet quickly. [I] caught it close to the edge – a precipice many fathoms deep. Its wings lay close to the sides – not hanging out. I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings. He made no cry. I strangled him.

Kieran Suckling: And that was the end of the great auk.

You Are Not the Villain in This Story

Lucas: Usually at this point in the story, people get real quiet. Of all the extinction stories I’ve heard and told over the course of this project, this one makes people the most genuinely angry. You’re right to feel that way, I won’t deny it.

Tierra Curry: I’ve given talks before where I put up the pictures of an extinct species and start telling their stories and people walk out of the room. And I finally realized I can’t just lead with that or be like, okay, here’s all the gloomy extinction statistics I have to be like, and here’s what we can do about it. And so for me, action is the antidote to despair.

Lucas: That’s Tierra Curry, Senior Scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Tierra Curry near one of 108 rivers she swam in 2021. Click to read her op-ed in the Washington Post.

Tierra Curry: I talked to people about extinction every day and I take a lot of hope from the things that people are doing. The Dungeons & dragons community is exploring extinction. Now, like I talk to elementary school students who are doing projects on climate change, or people contact me asking for how to build a pollinator garden in their community.

There’s so many good people out there doing so many creative things. And because I do extinction outreach, I get to talk to people every day who were doing something like from having bake sales, to writing songs, to writing poetry, to painting murals, whatever it is, people care and people are doing stuff. And that, that gives me a lot of hope.

How to Take Action Against Mass Extinction

Center for Biological Diversity

Center for Biological Diversity

Lucas: Here are two ways you can take action in the climate crisis. First, donate to conservation through Book of Extinction. Go to scintilla.studio/extinction, or go to Mage Hand Press to download the preview of Book of Extinction. You can pay what you want for it, and whatever you pay will be donated to the Center for Biological Diversity to preserve endangered species, habitat, and biodiversity.

Second, share these stories with the people you play games with. Just telling people these animals existed and what they represent begins to reverse the sliding scale of decreasing biodiversity by helping people realize what we’ve already lost. It matters how we portray these stories. The choices we make in art can persist for centuries to come.

Stan Rachootin: There was one great auk that was a pet of the king of Denmark and he made a little sort of pearl leash for it. And he walked around with his auk on a leash and a portrait was painted of it. And then other people as auks got, as the great auk got rarer and rarer, would use that portrait and copy it. And so many of the portraits of the wild great auk have a white ring around its neck, which was actually a necklace that was put around the pet auk’s neck.

Kieran Suckling: Actually I want to say one more thing about the great auk that’s interesting. So, its genus name is Pinguinnus, and it was found by Europeans course much earlier by, uh, indigenous people, but, but it was found by Europeans much sooner than penguins were ever discovered because they occur in Northwest Europe as well as, um, Northwest, uh, North America. And you know that’s why we have this old Norse name for it. But so it was the original penguin. Penguins were not yet known. So when penguins were later discovered by Europeans, they said, oh, well this is a very similar bird.

And so we’re going to call these ones penguins as well. You tend to think the penguin would have the first name penguin and it would go the other way, but it went, the other direction and it wasn’t until much later, uh, actually Carl Linnaeus, developing the original taxonomy system, separated them, them out. With all these birds there’s very interesting stories of the names, which goes back to the whole question of hybrids and monsters, because they all start blending into one another.

There’s not one of them that has some singular story of being what it is. It’s always, “well, we thought it was that, and it was related to this and then its name changed and then someone heard the name differently and every one of them. And so consequently, they’re all hybrid mythological beings tied to other, other creatures.

Writing the Great Auk as a D&D Monster

Lucas: So let’s take the Great Auk and make a monster.

We’ll call it the Ocean Master, the undisputed king of the seas. For this creature to maintain its inaccessible habitat in a world of magic where wizards can fly, it has to have magic of its own. Which means it cannot remain a beast.

Dungeons & Dragons classifies monsters into 14 distinct types. I hope Linnaeus shows us how influential such a system of classification can be on our discourse, but that’s a podcast for another time. It’s enough for now to say that creatures with the Beast type interact with the world in strictly physical ways; no D&D beast has the ability to cast spellls. So the Ocean Master gets upgraded to a Celestial.

There’s a suite of spells in Dungeons & Dragons that change the very terrain you pass through, perfect for the Ocean Master – but which ones to pick? In my experience, terrain spells can take up to twice as long to resolve as other spells, so we’ll limit the kit by setting the monster’s challenge rating at 3. This trims out some higher level spells like reverse gravity. We can remove a few that don’t match the great auk’s original environment – plant growth isn’t the best choice for a bird that spent 10 months out of the year floating in the ocean.

In the final render, we have a Small creature with a fearsome beak attack and innate spellcasting: fog cloud, ray of frost, spike growth, call lightning, control water, ice storm, and wall of stone.

With the Ocean Master in your campaign, you can replicate at your table the experience of navigating through treacherous Icelandic seas. What does it look like to sail those waters? What merchant’s offer would make it worth it? And what would have happened to the great auk if it had been able to control its habitat, instead of the other way around?

Special thanks this episode to Fred Venne and the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Ahmerst College for contributing the recording of Professor Rachooti’s tour. Thanks also to Kieran Suckling and Tierra Curry at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Thanks for listening to Making a Monster: Extinction. If bringing D&D to conservation matters to you, please visit scintilla.studio/extinction to download the Book of Extinction preview. You can pay what you think it’s worth or you can just have it, but whatever you pay through that page will be donated to conservation efforts to preserve endangered species, habitat, and biodiversity.

The D&D Fandom Can End Extinction

Tierra Curry: I am so excited about this. You really don’t know how excited I am about it, because it’s like, it’s a whole community that is passionate and driven and probably like resourceful and willing to dive into details on stuff. And I can just see this community running with this and being like we’re going to end extinction is that could be the tipping point in the D&D community like extinction and extinction ends here.

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Next Episode: The Thylacine

The thylacine of Tasmania becomes the ghost tiger of the Feywild: a tragic figure as enchanting as it is terrifying.


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