An auk or alcid is a bird of the family Alcidae in the order Charadriiformes. The alcid family includes the murres, guillemots, auklets, puffins, and murrelets.

Apart from the extinct great auk, all auks are notable for their ability to "fly" under water as well as in the air. Although they are excellent swimmers and divers, their walking appears clumsy.

Several species have different common names in Europe and North America. The guillemots of Europe are referred to as murres in North America, if they occur in both continents, and the little auk is referred to as the dovekie.

Temporal range: Late Eocene – Recent 35–0 Ma
Parakeet auklets (Aethia psittacula)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Charadriiformes
Clade: Pan-Alcidae
Family: Alcidae
Leach, 1820
Type species
Alca torda


Auks are superficially similar to penguins having black-and-white colours, upright posture and some of their habits. Nevertheless, they are not closely related to penguins, but rather are believed to be an example of moderate convergent evolution. Auks are monomorphic (males and females are similar in appearance).

Extant auks range in size from the least auklet, at 85 g (3 oz) and 15 cm (5.9 in), to the thick-billed murre, at 1 kg (2.2 lb) and 45 cm (18 in). Due to their short wings, auks have to flap their wings very quickly in order to fly.

Although not to the extent of penguins, auks have largely sacrificed flight, and also mobility on land, in exchange for swimming ability; their wings are a compromise between the best possible design for diving and the bare minimum needed for flying. This varies by subfamily, the Uria guillemots (including the razorbill) and murrelets being the most efficient under the water, whereas the puffins and auklets are better adapted for flying and walking.

Feeding and ecology

The feeding behaviour of auks is often compared to that of penguins; both groups are wing-propelled pursuit divers. In the region where auks live, their only seabird competition are cormorants (which are dive-powered by their strong feet). In areas where the two groups feed on the same prey, the auks tend to feed further offshore. Strong-swimming murres hunt faster schooling fish, whereas auklets take slower-moving krill. Time depth recorders on auks have shown that they can dive as deep as 100 m in the case of Uria guillemots, 40 m for the Cepphus guillemots and 30 m for the auklets.

Breeding and colonies

Auks are pelagic birds, spending the majority of their adult life on the open sea and going ashore only for breeding, although some species — like the common guillemot — spend a great part of the year defending their nesting spot from others.

Auks are monogamous, and tend to form lifelong pairs. They typically lay a single egg, and they are philopatric (they use the nesting site year after year).

Some species, such as the Uria guillemots, nest in large colonies on cliff edges; others, like the Cepphus guillemots, breed in small groups on rocky coasts; and the puffins, auklets and some murrelets nest in burrows. All species except the Brachyramphus murrelets are colonial.

Evolution and distribution

Auks as painted by Archibald Thorburn

Traditionally, the auks were believed to be one of the earliest distinct charadriiform lineages due to their characteristic morphology. However, genetic analyses have demonstrated that these peculiarities are the product of strong natural selection instead: as opposed to, for example, plovers (a much older charadriiform lineage), auks radically changed from a wading shorebird to a diving seabird lifestyle. Thus, today, the auks are no longer separated in their own suborder ("Alcae"), but are considered part of the Lari suborder which otherwise contains gulls and similar birds. Judging from genetic data, their closest living relatives appear to be the skuas, with these two lineages separating about 30 million years ago (mya).[1][2][3] Alternatively, auks may have split off far earlier from the rest of the Lari and undergone strong morphological, but slow genetic evolution, which would require a very high evolutionary pressure, coupled with a long lifespan and slow reproduction.

The earliest unequivocal fossils of auks are from the late Eocene, some 35 mya.[4] The genus Miocepphus, (from the Miocene, 15 mya) is the earliest known from good specimens. Two very fragmentary fossils are often assigned to the Alcidae, although this may not be correct: Hydrotherikornis (late Eocene) and Petralca (Late Oligocene). Most extant genera are known to exist since the Late Miocene or Early Pliocene (c. 5 mya). Miocene fossils have been found in both California and Maryland, but the greater diversity of fossils and tribes in the Pacific leads most scientists to conclude that it was there they first evolved, and it is in the Miocene Pacific that the first fossils of extant genera are found. Early movement between the Pacific and the Atlantic probably happened to the south (since there was no northern opening to the Atlantic), later movements across the Arctic Ocean.[5] The flightless subfamily Mancallinae, which was apparently restricted to the Pacific coast of southern North America and became extinct in the Early Pleistocene, is sometimes includes in the family Alcidae under some definitions. One species, Miomancalla howardae, is the largest charadriiform of all time.[6]

Alca torda Roest 2003
Razorbills are true auks only found in the Atlantic Ocean

The extant auks (subfamily Alcinae) are broken up into 2 main groups: the usually high-billed puffins (tribe Fraterculini) and auklets (tribe Aethiini), as opposed to the more slender-billed murres and true auks (tribe Alcini), and the murrelets and guillemots (tribes Brachyramphini and Cepphini). The tribal arrangement was originally based on analyses of morphology and ecology.[7] mtDNA cytochrome b sequence and allozyme studies[1][2] confirm these findings except that the Synthliboramphus murrelets should be split into a distinct tribe, as they appear more closely related to the Alcini – in any case, assumption of a closer relationship between the former and the true guillemots was only weakly supported by earlier studies.[7]

Of the genera there are only a few species in each. This is probably a product of the rather small geographic range of the family (the most limited of any seabird family), and the periods of glacial advance and retreat that have kept the populations on the move in a narrow band of subarctic ocean.

Today, as in the past, the auks are restricted to cooler northern waters. Their ability to spread further south is restricted as their prey hunting method, pursuit diving, becomes less efficient in warmer waters. The speed at which small fish (which along with krill are the auk's principal food items) can swim doubles as the temperature increases from 5 to 15 °C (41 to 59 °F), with no corresponding increase in speed for the bird. The southernmost auks, in California and Mexico, can survive there because of cold upwellings. The current paucity of auks in the Atlantic (6 species), compared to the Pacific (19–20 species) is considered to be because of extinctions to the Atlantic auks; the fossil record shows there were many more species in the Atlantic during the Pliocene. Auks also tend to be restricted to continental shelf waters and breed on few oceanic islands.

Hydotherikornis oregonus (Described by Miller in 1931), the oldest purported alcid from the Eocene of California, is actually a petrel (as reviewed by Chandler in 1990) and is reassigned to the tubenoses (Procellariiformes). A 2003 paper entitled "The Earliest North American Record of Auk (Aves: Alcidae) From the Late Eocene of Central Georgia" by Robert M. Chandler and Dennis Parmley of Georgia College and State University reports a Late Eocene, wing-propelled diving, auk from the Priabonain Stage of the Late Eocene. These sediments have been dated through Chandronian NALMA {North American Land Mammal Age}, at an estimate of 34.5 to 35.5 million years on the Eocene time scale for fossil bearing sediments of the Clinchfield Formation, Gordon, Wilkinson County, Georgia. Furthermore, the sediments containing this unabraded portion of a left humerus (43.7 mm long) are tropical or sub-tropical as evidenced by a wealth of warm water shark teeth, palaeophied snake vertebrae and turtles.



Rhinoceros auklet

Tufted puffin

Horned puffin

Atlantic puffin

Cassin's auklet

Least auklet

Parakeet auklet

Whiskered auklet

Crested auklet

Guadalupe murrelet

Scripps's murrelet

Craveri's murrelet

Japanese murrelet

Ancient murrelet

Long-billed murrelet

Marbled murrelet

Kittlitz's murrelet

Black guillemot

Spectacled guillemot

Pigeon guillemot

Thick-billed murre

Common murre

Little auk

Great auk


Cladogram of the Alcidae family[4]
Xantus adult
The synthliboramphine Xantus's murrelet (Synthliboramphus hypoleucus) is quite distinct from the brachyramphine murrelets.
Black guillemot (Cepphus grylle, a true guillemot) in summer (front) and winter plumage
Marbled murrelet breeding plumage
Marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus, a brachyramphine murrelet) in breeding plumage
Puffin Mrkoww
Tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata)

Biodiversity of auks seems to have been markedly higher during the Pliocene.[5] See the genus accounts for prehistoric species.

See also


  1. ^ a b Friesen, V.L.; Baker, A.J. & Piatt, J.F. (1996). "Phylogenetic Relationships Within the Alcidae (Charadriiformes: Aves) Inferred from Total Molecular Evidence". Molecular Biology and Evolution. 13 (2): 359–367. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.molbev.a025595.
  2. ^ a b Moum, Truls; Arnason, Ulfur & Árnason, Einar (2002). "Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Evolution and Phylogeny of the Atlantic Alcidae, Including the Extinct Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)". Molecular Biology and Evolution. 19 (9): 1434–1439. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.molbev.a004206. PMID 12200471.
  3. ^ Thomas, Gavin H.; Wills, Matthew A. & Székely, Tamás (2004). "A supertree approach to shorebird phylogeny". BMC Evolutionary Biology. 4 (1): 28. doi:10.1186/1471-2148-4-28. PMC 515296. PMID 15329156. Supplementary Material
  4. ^ a b Smith, N.A. (2011). "Taxonomic revision and phylogenetic analysis of the flightless Mancallinae (Aves, Pan-Alcidae)". ZooKeys. 91: 1–116. doi:10.3897/zookeys.91.709. PMC 3084493. PMID 21594108.
  5. ^ a b Konyukhov, N.B. (2002). "Possible Ways of Spreading and Evolution of Alcids". Biology Bulletin of the Russian Academy of Sciences (in Russian). 29 (5): 447–454. doi:10.1023/A:1020457508769.
  6. ^ Smith, N. A. (2015). "Evolution of body mass in the Pan-Alcidae (Aves, Charadriiformes): the effects of combining neontological and paleontological data". Paleobiology. 42 (1): 8–26. doi:10.1017/pab.2015.24.
  7. ^ a b Strauch J.G., Jr. (1985). "The phylogeny of the Alcidae" (PDF). The Auk. 102 (3): 520–539. JSTOR 4086647.

Further reading

Auk-class minesweeper

The Auk class were Allied minesweepers serving with the United States Navy and the British Royal Navy during the Second World War. In total, there were 95 Auks built.

Auk Satha

Auk Satha is a village in Mingin Township, Kale District, in the Sagaing Region of western Burma.

Great auk

The great auk (Pinguinus impennis) is a species of flightless alcid that became extinct in the mid-19th century. It was the only modern species in the genus Pinguinus. It is not closely related to the birds now known as penguins, which were discovered later and so named by sailors because of their physical resemblance to the great auk.

It bred on rocky, isolated islands with easy access to the ocean and a plentiful food supply, a rarity in nature that provided only a few breeding sites for the great auks. When not breeding, they spent their time foraging in the waters of the North Atlantic, ranging as far south as northern Spain and along the coastlines of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Ireland, and Great Britain.

The great auk was 75 to 85 cm (30 to 33 in) tall and weighed about 5 kg (11 lb), making it the second-largest member of the alcid family (Miomancalla was larger). It had a black back and a white belly. The black beak was heavy and hooked, with grooves on its surface. During summer, great auk plumage showed a white patch over each eye. During winter, the great auk lost these patches, instead developing a white band stretching between the eyes. The wings were only 15 cm (5.9 in) long, rendering the bird flightless. Instead, the great auk was a powerful swimmer, a trait that it used in hunting. Its favourite prey were fish, including Atlantic menhaden and capelin, and crustaceans. Although agile in the water, it was clumsy on land. Great auk pairs mated for life. They nested in extremely dense and social colonies, laying one egg on bare rock. The egg was white with variable brown marbling. Both parents participated in the incubation of the egg for around 6 weeks before the young hatched. The young left the nest site after 2–3 weeks, although the parents continued to care for it.

The great auk was an important part of many Native American cultures, both as a food source and as a symbolic item. Many Maritime Archaic people were buried with great auk bones. One burial discovered included someone covered by more than 200 great auk beaks, which are presumed to be the remnants of a cloak made of great auk skins. Early European explorers to the Americas used the great auk as a convenient food source or as fishing bait, reducing its numbers. The bird's down was in high demand in Europe, a factor that largely eliminated the European populations by the mid-16th century. Scientists soon began to realize that the great auk was disappearing and it became the beneficiary of many early environmental laws, but this proved ineffectual.

Its growing rarity increased interest from European museums and private collectors in obtaining skins and eggs of the bird. On 3 June 1844, the last two confirmed specimens were killed on Eldey, off the coast of Iceland, ending the last known breeding attempt. Later reports of roaming individuals being seen or caught are unconfirmed. A record of one great auk in 1852 is considered by some to be the last sighting of a member of the species. The great auk is mentioned in several novels and the scientific journal of the American Ornithologists' Union is named The Auk in honour of this bird.


Guillemot is the common name for several species of seabird in the Alcidae or auk family (part of the order Charadriiformes). In British use, the term comprises two genera: Uria and Cepphus. In North America the Uria species are called "murres" and only the Cepphus species are called "guillemots". This word of French origin derives from a form of the name William, cf. French: Guillaume.The two living species of Uria, together with the razorbill, dovekie and the extinct great auk, make up the tribe Alcini. They have distinctly white bellies, thicker and longer bills than Cepphus, and form very dense colonies on cliffs during the reproductive season.

The three living species of Cepphus form a tribe of their own: Cepphini. They are smaller than the Uria species and have black bellies, rounder heads and bright red feet.

In July 2013, Steven Portugal from the Royal Veterinary College demonstrated that when water touches the eggs, it forms into droplets rather than running off; in other words, guillemot eggs are water-repellent and self-cleaning.

Little auk

The little auk or dovekie (Alle alle) is a small auk, the only member of the genus Alle. Alle is the Sami name of the long-tailed duck; it is onomatopoeic and imitates the call of the drake duck. Linnaeus was not particularly familiar with the winter plumages of either the auk or the duck, and appears to have confused the two species.It breeds on islands in the high Arctic. There are two subspecies: A. a. alle breeds in Greenland, Iceland, Novaya Zemlya and Svalbard, and A. a. polaris on Franz Josef Land. A small number of individuals breed on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait with additional breeding individuals thought to occur on King Island, St. Lawrence Island, St. Matthew Island and the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea.

Lower Myanmar

Lower Burma (Burmese: အောက်မြန်မာပြည်, also called Outer Myanmar) is a geographic region of Burma (Myanmar) and includes the low-lying Irrawaddy delta (Ayeyarwady, Bago and Yangon Regions), as well as coastal regions of the country (Rakhine and Mon States and Tanintharyi Region).

In the Burmese language, people originating from Upper Burma are typically called a-htet-tha for men and a-hiet-lhu for women, whereas those from Lower Burma are called auk tha (အောက်သား) for men and auk thu for women.Historically, Lower Burma referred to the part of Burma annexed by the British Empire after the end of the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852, plus the former kingdom of Arakan and the territory of Tenasserim which the British had taken control of in 1826 through the Treaty of Yandabo. Lower Burma was centred at Rangoon, and composed of all of the coast of modern Burma, and also the lower basin of the Irrawaddy River, including Prome. Until the early 19th century, Lower Burma was predominantly populated by the Mon and Karen tribes and was a historical stronghold of the Mon people.

RIT Kosovo

The Rochester Institute of Technology Kosovo (or formerly known as the American University in Kosovo, RIT/AUK) is a private university located in the Germia district of Pristina, Kosovo. The university was established in 2002 and is part of the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York.


The razorbill or lesser auk (Alca torda) is a colonial seabird in the monotypic genus Alca of the family Alcidae, the auks. It is the closest living relative of the extinct great auk (Pinguinis impennis). Wild populations live in the subarctic waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Razorbills are primarily black with a white underside. The male and female are identical in plumage; however, males are generally larger than females. This agile bird, which is capable of both flight and diving, has a predominantly aquatic lifestyle and only comes to land in order to breed. It is monogamous, choosing one partner for life. Females lay one egg per year. Razorbills nest along coastal cliffs in enclosed or slightly exposed crevices. The parents spend equal amounts of time incubating, and once the chick has hatched, they take turns foraging for their young.

In 1918, the razorbill was protected in the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Presently, the major threat for the population is the destruction of breeding sites.

The Auk

The Auk: Ornithological Advances is a weekly peer-reviewed scientific journal and the official publication of the American Ornithological Society (AOS). It was established in 1884. The journal covers the anatomy, behavior, and distribution of birds. It is named for the great auk, the symbol of the AOU. The journal is published by the American Ornithological Society.

In 2018, the American Ornithology Society announced a partnership with Oxford University Press to publish The Auk: Ornithological Advances and The Condor: Ornithological Applications .

USS Auk (AM-38)

USS Auk (AM-38) was an Lapwing-class minesweeper acquired by the U.S. Navy after World War I for the task of removing mines that had been placed during the war.

The first ship to be named Auk by the Navy, Minesweeper No. 38 was laid down on 20 June 1918 at New York City by the Todd Shipyard Corp.; launched on 28 September 1918; sponsored by Miss Nan McArthur Beattie daughter of a Todd Shipyard foremen, and commissioned at the New York Navy Yard on 31 January 1919, Lt. Gregory Cullen in command.Between World War I and World War II, Auk was converted into a survey ship for the Coast and Geodetic Survey, and was renamed USS Discoverer (ARS-3) as well as USC&GS Discoverer.

USS Auk (AM-57)

USS Auk (AM-57) was an Auk-class minesweeper acquired by the United States Navy for the dangerous task of removing mines from minefields laid in the water to prevent ships from passing.

Auk was named after the auk, a diving bird native to the colder climates of the northern hemisphere.

The second warship of the U.S. Navy to be named Auk, the ship was laid down on 15 April 1941 at Portsmouth, Virginia, by the Norfolk Navy Yard; launched on 26 August; sponsored by Miss Priscilla Alden Hague, the daughter of Commander Wesley M. Hague; and commissioned on 15 January 1942, Lieutenant Commander George W. Allen in command.

USS Champion (AM-314)

The third USS Champion (BAM-1/AM-314/MSF-314) was an Auk-class minesweeper of the United States Navy.

The ship was the first of 32 vessels of the Auk class ordered for transfer to Great Britain under Lend-Lease, and designated British Minesweeper HMS Akbar (BAM-1). Twelve of these ships were retained for service in the U.S. Navy.

Launched on 12 December 1942 by General Engineering & Dry Dock Company, Alameda, California; redesignated USS Champion (AM-314) on 23 January 1943, and commissioned on 8 September 1943, Lieutenant Commander J. H. Howard, Jr., USNR, in command.

USS Minivet (AM-371)

USS Minivet (AM-371) was an Auk-class minesweeper acquired by the United States Navy for the dangerous task of removing mines from minefields laid in the water to prevent ships from passing.

Minivet was named after the minivet, a type of cuckoo shrike of Asiatic origin.

Minivet was laid down 19 July 1944 by Savannah Machine & Foundry Co., Savannah, Georgia: launched 8 November 1944; sponsored by Miss Henrietta G. Jerrell; commissioned 29 May 1945, Lt. Comdr. Richard Lagreze in command.

USS Pigeon (AM-374)

USS Pigeon (AM-374) was an Auk-class minesweeper acquired by the United States Navy for the dangerous task of removing mines from minefields laid in the water to prevent ships from passing.

Pigeon was laid down 10 November 1944 by the Savannah Machine and Foundry Co., Savannah, Georgia; launched 28 March 1945; sponsored by Miss Jean Ross; and commissioned at Savannah on 30 October 1945, Lt. Comdr. Robert S. Cathcart in command.

USS Portent (AM-106)

USS Portent (AM-106) was an Auk-class minesweeper acquired by the United States Navy for the dangerous task of removing mines from minefields laid in the water to prevent ships from passing.

Portent — a metal-hulled minesweeper — was named after the word "portent", something that foreshadows a coming event. In this case, it was an appropriate name since the Portent struck a mine and was sunk not long after her commissioning.

Portent was laid down on 15 November 1941 by the Pennsylvania Shipyard, Inc., Beaumont, Texas, launched on 16 August 1942, sponsored by Mrs. Arthur L. Kline, Jr., and commissioned on 3 April 1943, Lieutenant Howard C. Plummer in command.

USS Scoter (AM-381)

The second USS Scoter (AM-381) was an Auk-class minesweeper acquired by the United States Navy for the dangerous task of removing mines from minefields laid in the water to prevent ships from passing.

Scoter was named after the word "Scoter," which is a mercantile name retained during service in the United States Navy.

Scoter was the second United States Navy vessel to have that name, and was laid down on 4 April 1944 by the Gulf Shipbuilding Corp., Chickasaw, Alabama; launched on 26 September 1944; sponsored by Mrs. Reuben E. Clarson; and commissioned on 17 March 1945, Lt. Comdr. G. W. Lundgren in command.

USS Swerve (AM-121)

USS Swerve (AM-121) was an Auk-class minesweeper acquired by the United States Navy for the dangerous task of removing mines from minefields laid in the water to prevent ships from passing.

Swerve was the first U.S. Navy vessel so named. It was laid down on 27 May 1942 by John H. Mathis & Company, Camden, New Jersey; launched on 25 February 1943; sponsored by Ms. E. C. Draemel; and commissioned on 23 January 1944, Lieutenant A. Morthland, USNR, in command.

Swerve held sea trials from 1–14 February and sailed for Little Creek, Virginia, on the 15th to begin her shakedown cruise. Most of March was spent in a post-shakedown availability and in training.

USS Waxwing (AM-389)

USS Waxwing (AM-389) was an Auk-class minesweeper acquired by the United States Navy for the dangerous task of removing mines from minefields laid in the water to prevent ships from passing. She was the only U.S. Navy ship named for the waxwing, any of several American and Asiatic songbirds which are for the most part brown and are characterized by predominant crests and velvety plumage.

Waxwing was laid down on 24 May 1944 by the American Ship Building Company, Lorain, Ohio; launched on 10 March 1945; and commissioned on 6 August 1945, Lt. Comdr. J. F. Rowe in command.

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.