Remains of 'first penguin' unearthed on south coast

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The Independent Online

Rare remains of an extinct flightless bird, once called the original penguin, have been unearthed at an archaeological dig on Britain's south coast.

The great auk was killed for food and eggs and later for its feathers when they became fashion accessories. Large breeding colonies used to gather on rocky islands off eastern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Ireland and Great Britain until they were hunted to extinction.

The last known breeding pair of great auks was killed by hunters on Eldey island, off Iceland in 1844. It was the first bird to be given the name penguin, and when British sailors saw similar flightless birds in the Southern Oceans they called them by the same name.

Fragments of the 75cm-tall bird were uncovered during excavation of a Roman and medieval site in Portland, Dorset, between 2005 and 2006.

Dr Mark Maltby of Bournemouth University confirmed the rare find after analysing 13,600 bone fragments which were unearthed in the dig.

Susann Palmer, director of The Association for Portland Archaeology which supervised the dig, said: "It's a wonderful discovery and Dr Maltby said it was of international importance because records of it in earlier periods are extremely rare."

Remains have been discovered in other parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Isles of Scilly but Mrs Palmer added: "This is the first time it has been found on the south coast."

The birds, which lived on a diet of fish, laid just one egg each year, which was incubated on land and hatched in June.

But while they were strong swimmers, their flightlessness, clumsiness on land and lack of innate fear of humans made them an easy target for hunters.