The existence of the flightless great birds, which once lived in Scotland and were hunted to extinction in the 19th century, was not represented in the university’s massive collections of more than one million items.
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Now, however, it appears that for the last 30 years the museum has had the skeletal remains of the birds, dubbed the “original penguins”, all along, but did not realise. Now the bones, found in a grave at Crosskirk Broch in Caithness in the early 1970s, will be able to be viewed by the public after being rediscovered in an extensive new categorisation of the museum’s collections.
Experts at the museum would have taken 50 years to sort through the paper records of their entire collections – which span from fine art to physics equipment owned by Lord
Kelvin, to coins, rocks and geological finds, Egyptian and Roman artefacts, to the natural sciences, sculpture and medical collections – and put them on easily accessible computer files.
However, with a fresh way of categorising items in the collection – putting similar objects together in groups rather than noting them all individually – a small team of archivists will have the information about the entire collection available online by the end of 2010. Along the way, the university is finally discovering what is in its unrivalled
collections, which is where the Great Auk comes in.
John Faithfull, a curator of rocks and minerals and in charge of the process, said: “We still have 870,000 items to go in this process but what this has done is allowed us to take a short cut – decide to not do the impossible and log online each individual item, but group things together so that people can then investigate further.
“By and large we knew what he had here but they were all recorded in specialist groupings, so archaeology, zoology or
whatever may have known what they had but the other did not. Now we are discovering a broader view. We have found some interesting things along the way and the Great Auk is a prime example. Because they were included in an archeological find they were put with our archeological items and zoologists never knew we had them.
“We never knew, and indeed our zoologists have been quite depressed about it because they are such a glamourous, high-profile bird, but here, by goodness, we do have one.”
At the moment, 130,000 items are listed online by the museum, but a website to access information on the entire collection should be completed by Mr Faithfull and his assistants, Rachel Jennings and Shan Macdonald, by the end of summer.
“The public, academics, even schoolkids will be able to see what we have and arrange to come and see them,” said Mr Faithfull.
Creatures that went the way of Great Auk
By Rebecca Gray
The Great Auk: Found on islands off Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Ireland and Great Britain, it was the only species in the Pinguinus, a group of birds that included several flightless giant auks, to survive until modern times. Their inability to fly and awkwardness on land led to them being hunted to extinction.
The Dodo: a flightless bird, left, found on Mauritius. Extinct since the mid-7th century, the Dodo stood about three feet tall, weighed around 44 lb and lived on fruit and nesting found on the ground.
Guam Flying Fox: A fruit bat, native to Guam, on the Marianas island chain. Considered a delicacy, this species was extensively hunted, which led to its extinction in the mid-20th century.
Javan Tiger: Excessive hunting and loss of habitat led to the extinction of the Javan Tiger in the 1980s. By 1950s, only around 25 tigers were surviving in the wild of the Indonesian island.
Little Swan Island Hutia: A guinea pig-like rodent and a slow-moving creature that left the caves and lime stone crevices to feed on barks, twigs and leaves. A hurricane in 1955 resulted in loss of habitat, and the introduction of house cats to the island led to the creature’s extinction.