Article open access publication

Demographic reconstruction from ancient DNA supports rapid extinction of the great auk

eLife, eLife, ISSN 2050-084X

Volume 8, 2019

DOI:10.7554/elife.47509, Dimensions: pub.1122907593, PMC: PMC6879203, PMID: 31767056,



  1. (1) Bangor University, grid.7362.0
  2. (2) University of Copenhagen, grid.5254.6, KU
  3. (3) University of Otago, grid.29980.3a
  4. (4) Norwegian University of Science and Technology, grid.5947.f
  5. (5) University of Sydney, grid.1013.3
  6. (6) Verkís Consulting Engineers, Reykjavik, Iceland
  7. (7) Aarhus University, grid.7048.b, AU
  8. (8) Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, grid.424543.0
  9. (9) University of California, Santa Cruz, grid.205975.c
  10. (10) Chicago Zoological Society, grid.472876.8
  11. (11) Landesmuseum Natur und Mensch Oldenburg, Oldenburg, Germany
  12. (12) Cardiff University, grid.5600.3
  13. (13) Bournemouth University, grid.17236.31
  14. (14) Kiel University, grid.9764.c
  15. (15) University of Amsterdam, grid.7177.6
  16. (16) Arqueología Prehistórica, Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi, San Sebastián, Spain
  17. (17) Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, grid.243983.7
  18. (18) Free University of Berlin, grid.14095.39
  19. (19) Gothenburg Museum of Natural History, Gothenburg, Sweden
  20. (20) University of Oslo, grid.5510.1
  21. (21) University of Southampton, grid.5491.9
  22. (22) American Museum of Natural History, grid.241963.b
  23. (23) Independent researcher, Kent, United Kingdom
  24. (24) Department of Natural History, University Museum of Bergen, Bergen, Norway
  25. (25) University of Greenland, grid.449721.d
  26. (26) University of Potsdam, grid.11348.3f


The great auk was once abundant and distributed across the North Atlantic. It is now extinct, having been heavily exploited for its eggs, meat, and feathers. We investigated the impact of human hunting on its demise by integrating genetic data, GPS-based ocean current data, and analyses of population viability. We sequenced complete mitochondrial genomes of 41 individuals from across the species' geographic range and reconstructed population structure and population dynamics throughout the Holocene. Taken together, our data do not provide any evidence that great auks were at risk of extinction prior to the onset of intensive human hunting in the early 16th century. In addition, our population viability analyses reveal that even if the great auk had not been under threat by environmental change, human hunting alone could have been sufficient to cause its extinction. Our results emphasise the vulnerability of even abundant and widespread species to intense and localised exploitation.


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