The great auk is one of the most tragic and documented examples of extinction. A flightless bird that bred primarily on the remote islands of the North Atlantic, the last of its kind were killed in Iceland in 1844. Gisli Palsson draws on firsthand accounts from the Icelanders who hunted the last great auks to bring to life a bygone age of Victorian scientific exploration while offering vital insights into the extinction of species.
Palsson vividly recounts how British ornithologists John Wolley and Alfred Newton set out for Iceland to collect specimens only to discover that the great auks were already gone. At the time, the Victorian world viewed extinction as an impossibility or trivialized it as a natural phenomenon. Palsson chronicles how Wolley and Newton documented the fate of the last birds through interviews with the men who killed them, and how the naturalists' Icelandic journey opened their eyes to the disappearance of species as a subject of scientific concern-and as something that could be caused by humans.
Blending a richly evocative narrative with rare, unpublished material as well as insights from ornithology, anthropology, and Palsson's own North Atlantic travels, The Last of Its Kind reveals how the saga of the great auk opens a window onto the human causes of mass extinction.
Gísli Pálsson is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Iceland. His books include The Human Age, Down to Earth, and The Man Who Stole Himself.
"The Last of Its Kind recounts the final chapter of the great auk's tragic story. Gísli Pálsson's meditation on the meaning of extinction is thoughtful, clarifying, and deeply moving."
– Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
"A richly detailed, insightful, and valuable account of the little-known expedition that finally awakened Victorians to the reality of human-caused extinction."
– Michelle Nijhuis, author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction
"The extinction of the great auk took place in real time and under the watchful eyes of European naturalists even as the fate of the famous dodo still puzzled them. Gísli Pálsson brilliantly explores the cultural climate in which the idea of human-induced extinction became accepted as scientific fact. Pálsson's elegantly written historical ethnography tells a story that unites the settled ecological past, the ambivalent present, and the probable future."
– Jonathan Marks, author of Is Science Racist?
"Iceland was where, in 1844, the last great auks were seen and killed – an event documented a few years later by British ornithologists John Wolley and Alfred Newton. Using Wolley's long-forgotten notebooks, Icelandic anthropologist Gísli Pálsson has created a marvelous and penetrating biography of a bird whose extinction is a powerful reminder of our own culpability and vulnerability."
– Tim Birkhead, author of Birds and Us
"This book puts the story of the great auk and its sad disappearance in the much wider context of recent extinctions."
– Errol Fuller, author of The Great Auk: The Extinction of the Original Penguin