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Razorbill-like birds were common in the Atlantic during the Pliocene, but the evolution of the little auk is sparsely documented.
Known from bones found in the Yorktown Formation of the Lee Creek Mine in North Carolina, it is believed to have split, along with the great auk, from a common ancestor.
The great auk also was related closely to the little auk (dovekie), which underwent a radically different evolution compared to Pinguinus.
Due to its outward similarity to the razorbill (apart from flightlessness and size), the great auk often was placed in the genus Alca, following Linnaeus.
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.
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). The black beak was heavy and hooked, with grooves on its surface.
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.
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.