Scientific History

It was only after the extinction of the Great Auk from Funk Island that natural scientists began to visit the site.

The Norwegian, Peter Stuwitz, a natural historian from the Bergen Museum, was the first. In 1841, Stuwitz collected Great Auk skeletal material and described “enormous heaps” of bird remains and the stone compounds into which the auks were herded before being slaughtered for their down.

It was more than 30 years before the next scientist visited. In 1875, the British geologist John Milne, of earthquake and seismology fame, went ashore on a day trip to collect Great Auk material. While there, he also procured a Beothuk canoe paddle and some arrow heads in the easternmost gully on the island that has been traditionally referred to as Indian Gulch.

The initial mother lode of scientific information came from Frederick Lucas of the U.S. National Museum in Washington D.C. Lucas, like Stuwitz, was commissioned to study the Newfoundland cod fishery. In 1887, he made a special effort to visit Funk Island as part of the U.S. Grampus oceanographic survey. Many of the Great Auk specimens in natural history museums come from Lucas’s collections.

Great Auk Skeleton by Frederic Lucas at Harvard University

 

Besides reporting large numbers of arctic terns and Atlantic Puffins, Lucas observed that there were few seabirds on the island. He also created a highly informative map of Funk Island that shows the expanse of the auk remains and the locations of the pounds and stone hut.

 

 

Fifty years later, in 1937, E. T. Gilliard, an ornithologist from the American Museum of Natural History, landed on the island and recorded the re-establishment of the Northern Gannet colony. He counted seven breeding pairs and about 40 gannets.

In the early 1950’s, scientific ornithology got a first firm foothold on Funk Island with the research of Les Tuck, of the Canadian Wildlife Service. Tuck documented the rapid growth of the Common Murre colony, the presence of Thick-billed Murres and pursued behavioral and biological studies. Working with Tuck from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, David Nettleship of the Canadian Wildlife Service, carried out population studies of the gannets and, with Tim Birkhead, of Common Murres. At Tuck’s urging, Bill Montevecchi made his first visit to Funk Island in 1977 and initiated new research on the feeding ecology of seabirds.

Prior to the turn of the current century, scientific knowledge of seabirds was essentially dependant on direct observations of birds on land. But seabirds are primarily marine animals that spend most of their lives on the ocean. With the invention and miniaturization of bird-borne tracking devices, it became possible to study the behaviour of seabirds in their own environment. This has led to many new studies that have revolutionized our understanding of both seabirds and the marine environment.

Tracking device attached to Northern Gannet

GPS foraging tracks of gannets from Funk Island

Over the decades, some research highlights and collaborators include: