Question: What kind of bird is flightless, waddles standing upright on the ground, is an excellent swimmer, breeds in colonies on rocky shores, lives on a diet of fish and has a white belly and black back, and most importantly is not a penguin?
The answer: The extinct great auk. You can think of the great auk as the northern hemisphere equivalent of the penguin. In fact the scientific name, given to them in 1791, of the great auk is Pinguinus impennis. The southern hemisphere penguins, discovered later, were called penguins by sailors because of their similarity to the great auk.
The great auk and penguins: an example of convergent evolution
Based on general observations of their appearance, diet, and behaviors one could be forgiven for thinking that great auk must be related to penguins—or even are a type of penguin. However, genetic and internal anatomical studies of great auks reveal that the great auk is most similar—and therefore most likely closely related—to razorbills, who are members of the bird family Alcidae with 25 living species which also include puffins, auklets and murrelets. All of these presumed relatives of the auk are able to fly, though not particularly well, but, like the auk, spend much of their time swimming in the ocean and have similar mating and nesting behaviors.
Rather than similarity because of common ancestry with penguins, the many adaptations that great auks display that resemble those of the penguins are an example of convergent evolution of formerly flight-capable birds adept at catching fish while “flying” through the water. Convergent evolution may occur when animals of different ancestry but living in similar habitats (e.g. penguins in the southern hemisphere and auks in similar habitats in the northern hemisphere) independently gain similar adaptations to those environments. Natural selection shapes the traits of these birds to best fit that environment. In this case of these flightless shorebirds, feather coloration, feather shape, wing morphology as swimming paddles, capacity to live on a fish diet, blood physiology for deep diving, etc. have all evolved to allow the auk to be exquisitely adapted to life as an underwater predator compared to even its flight-capable relatives.
Penguins vs auks: Literal six-day creationists send mixed signals about the origin of species
Young-earth creationists (YECs) are the best known anti-evolutionists. So what do they have to say about the origin of the great auk and penguins? Briefly: penguins were created by God very much as we see them today but great auks were created as a type of shorebird which later evolved flightlessness and the ability to fly under water and catch fish.
YECs treat all 17 living species and 30+ extinct species of penguins as a single created “kind.” Within a “kind” most YECs believe that speciation can occur though just how much deviation from the original morphology of the kind is unclear. For example, all canines are said to be a single “kind” but other carnivores, such as bears and cats, are different kinds and thus believed to share no common ancestry despite many similarities. Likewise, YECs believe that the original penguin was created as a flightless aquatic bird. Representatives of those original penguins were preserved on Noah’s Ark just 4350 years ago and since leaving the Ark have diverged into many extinct and living species.
The great auk shares many features with penguins but YECs do not believe they are penguins despite claiming that “Penguins are unique in being both flightless and aquatic (Roberson 2012)” even though great auks were also flightless and aquatic.
So what do YECs believe about the origins of the great auk? They believe it is just one of more than 350 species of shorebirds. Jean Lighter, who identifies the penguins as a single kind of bird created flightless and aquatic, places all of the shorebirds into a single shorebird kind. The shorebirds include plovers, of which the killdeer is one species, sandpipers, terns, gulls, puffins and many more. Lightner’s, and by extension the young-earth apologetics ministry, Answers in Genesis, believe that all these bird species have a single common ancestor and thus the killdeer and the great auk share a single common set of parents.
If you are confused by the young-earth system of classification you are not alone. It is difficult to discern the rules used to determine when two species might have evolved from common ancestors and when a species or group of species has a strictly supernatural origin.
Hybridization criteria? Ostensibly, YECs point to the possibility hybridization between two species as the best evidence they share a common ancestor and thus are the same created kind. But the application of this rule is difficult and not applied consistently. In the example of shorebirds, I know of no evidence that a razorbill can interbreed successfully with a killdeer or even a seagull and yet YECs place all of them together in one kind. Why? I believe it is primarily because of their desire to reduce the number of birds that Noah had to preserve on the ark. They do this by compressing all of the shorebirds into a single pair on the ark 4350 years ago. Secondarily, they recognize that there is no supporting fossil data for these species having existed before the Flood since they are completely absent from their global Flood geological record. Hence, they can claim that the reason no fossils exist is because none of these species existed prior to Noah’s Flood and that they all came into existence through rapid post-flood speciation from just a few common ancestors.
What about genetic similarity? High genetic similarity (e.g. very similar DNA sequences and/or gene structure and arrangement) suggest common ancestry but here again we find the YECs are inconsistent in applying genetic—and even morphological—similarity as a criteria for establishing common ancestry or supernatural creation. For example, great auks and razorbills are very similar to each other genetically (DNA sequence differences) but great auks and killdeer are very different (84% similar in their mtDNA genome). The latter differences are about the same as observed between penguins and loons and wandering albatrosses (83% similarity). And yet, penguins and loons are considered different “kinds” by YECs but the great auk and killdeer are said to be the same kind.
If great auks could have evolved from a flighted bird which departed from Noah’s ark 4350 years ago why not penguins?
In denying that penguins could have evolved from a flighted ancestor, some YECs will point to a lack of fossil evidence of the transition of penguins from a flighted ancestor to the current penguin lineages. The fossil record is a bit thin when one looks at rocks that are 30 million years and older but it is clear that the oldest fossils of penguins where not “just like today’s penguins” as suggested by Answers in Genesis. Most notably the oldest fossils of relatives of the penguins had foldable arms (see image of Waimanu below), similar to the great auk’s, as opposed to the locked joints in the flippers of all penguins all share today. They also had longer more flexible necks and slender beaks and other bone structures with similarity to flighted birds such as loons.
The great auk has closer living relatives that can fly than penguins do making it more obvious to the YEC that they must have evolved from common ancestors of these flighted lineages. But using typical YEC arguments directed at evolutionary explanations, we could ask, why must great auks be related by common ancestry to other bird species that are able to fly? YEC are quick to say that there are no transitional fossils for penguins but where then are the transition fossils for great auks? The great auks lack a fossil record of intermediates with a living species. There are other known species of great auks but I don’t know of any “transitional fossil” or common ancestor fossil that has been found directly connecting the great auk to any other shorebird. If there is no evidence of the transition from ancestor to great auk why do YEC believe that such an evolutionary transformation ever took place?
Ironically, the penguins have a better-known fossil record (Footnote 1) than great auks, despite being limited to the southern hemisphere. Significantly for the YEC proponent, both fossil records are found solely in rocks that most YECs believe were laid down after Noah’s flood (conventionally post-Cretaceous) and thus YECs have no physical (or as they call it “observational”) evidence that either of these types of birds existed before the Flood. So what would prohibit a YEC from believing that either both penguins and auks were specially created and preserved on the ark as separate kinds or both evolved from common ancestors that were able to fly? Why treat their origins as differently as they do?
Lastly, the YEC must account for observational evidence that great auks have existed as a species since the earliest times after the Flood. Great auk bones have been found associated with Neanderthal cooking sites in Spain (Steward 2001): This same paper records fossil evidence of two dozen species of auks, puffins, petrels and razorbills from 10s to hundreds of thousands of years ago that are the same species as those found in Europe today.
The YEC won’t accept the timescales in this paper but they should recognize that this does push the origin of all these bird species back to the very earliest moments after the Flood. Hence, the YEC must accept that all these shorebirds species were immediately formed after the Flood but then haven’t changed since. Specifically, YECs believe that Neanderthals were descendants of Noah who lived soon after the Flood, therefore, it logically follows that great auks must have already evolved into flightless birds soon after their flighted ancestors departed from Noah’s Ark.
If YECs are correct that great auks truly are evolved descendants of shorebirds then they must have lost flight and adapted to a swimming and fishing lifestyle within a few generations after the Flood leaving no evidence in the fossil record of that transformation. If such rapid and radical evolutionary change can happen to great auks, why are YECs so sure that penguins could not have experienced the same rapid transformation from a loon or albatross ancestor?
The great auk – created by God for life in the sea via ancestors who lived on land
The great auk was wonderfully adapted to life in the sea. It was a great swimmer and lived on a diet of fish. Its closest living relatives paint a picture of how the great auk became so well adapted for its flightless lifestyle. Most of them can fly but their wings are also adapted for efficient underwater swimming. They also have many remarkable physiological adaptations allowing them to dive more than 100 feet below the surface and remain submerged for 10 minutes or more. It is not unreasonable to suggest that a shared common ancestor of these species gave rise to a bird that traded its ability to fly for even greater ability to swim and catch fish resulting in a flightless bird, much like the flightless cormorants of the Galapagos today, or the hesperornithines of times past. What is not reasonable is to suggest that this transformation occurred in a matter of a few dozen generations not more than 4300 years ago.
Unfortunately, as well adapted as the great auk was for the seafaring life there was one thing that the great auk was maladapted for—human beings. Natural selection provides a mechanism for tuning the traits of an organism to its environment. In this case the great auk lived in places with few predators and thus flightlessness, low egg production and lack of fear of predators were traits that were selected for (or not selected against) in this species. As a result the great auk was wonderfully adapted to its particular environment until human beings discovered them. Unfortunately natural selection and mutations are not processes that can reshape organisms as quickly as the YEC might hope and so the great auk, like the flightless moas of New Zealand and the Dodos of the island of Mauritius, was easily pushed into extinction by humans by the middle 1800s.
Previously we saw that YECs believe that God created a perfect paradise which was corrupted by sin (Paradise lost or a portrait of a good creation?). That sin mutated all of creation such that organisms now experienced death and needed defense mechanisms. Therefore none of the animals we see today are really anything like their originally-created counterparts. In this worldview, the great auk is the direct product of sin rather than of creation. For the YEC the great auk was created perfectly to fly over the fact of the earth but sin corrupted its genome and it lost its ability to fly. YECs will grant that God must have provided animals with the capacity to adapt to a world of predation and so the great auk has features that allowed for its survival.
I believe a more biblically consistent and thus sound view of the great auk is that it is part of the good creation. It is not the product of the corruption of sin. But sin does have an effect on the world. It broke the relationship of man and God. Man no longer cares properly for God’s creation which great effects that creation. In a world in which man had a right relationship with God he may not have pushed the auk into extinction through greed and malicious intent. The great auk was a creature which brought glory to God and was a resource free for man to use but not abuse. The great auk may have gone extinct as millions of animals have before but in the economy of God’s original purpose for man that extinction would not have been the result of a gratuitous lack of care (ethics) for His creation but may have been the result of God’s providential economy of life on earth.
Editing provided by LC