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 (c) 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.
Gudmundur Gudmundsson, who's now the institute's deputy director, had been assigned the task of showing me the auk. Gudmundsson 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. Gudmundsson 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," Gudmundsson 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.
Gudmundsson 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 Gudmundsson 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.