Welcome back, nature fans, to Big East Extinction is Forever!
We didn't have an installment last week, because we're only doing one extinct animal per opponent, not per game. If you'd like to propose a second extinct animal for Marquette, Louisville, UConn, or our Big East Tournament opponent, feel free to do so in the comments. Better still, this blog has a long history of promoting excellent FanPosts, so feel free to get in touch with your inner Marlin Perkins.
Providence has always been an ignorable little school. They're bad most years, but not so bad or for so long that they become noteworthy. Nor are they obnoxious enough to hate. They've had occasional moments of success and a few great players, but for the most part they're that school you can't remember. They're now part of the so-called Catholic 7, which consists of Georgetown, Villanova, St. John's, Seton Hall, Marquette, DePaul, and... uh... who am I forgetting? Granted, you'd have to be Rain Man to remember who's in the conference any more.
More recently, the word "Providence" has become synonymous with "the league office", which is located in the city of Providence, Rhode Island. To put it mildly, this is not a positive connotation. (See also: numerous "Providence Mafia" jokes on this blog.) But today's extinct animal is chosen with both meanings in mind.
Like the Providence Friars, the great auk's only colors are black and white, and are native to the rocky coastal north Atlantic. And like any good northeasterner, they're choosy about where they live, and prefer a high population density: the relatively few auk breeding sites (only six are known; there may only ever have been 20 total) were densely packed with life. One estimate puts auk breeding sites at one per square meter. And that amount of living space probably cost $10,000.
The great auk is one of the saddest stories in extinction. For starters, they were incredibly valuable animals. Great auks could be used for skin, meat, eggs, down feathers, fishing bait, heating oil, or even prehistoric bling (one guy was found buried in a coat of 200 auk beaks). Alive, they could serve as pets, navigational aids, or cultural symbols. They're the closest thing we've ever had to shmoos.
As you can imagine, such a useful creature would quickly find itself over-harvested. But the great auk's demise was far more stupid than that. In early 19th century Europe, people started to notice that auks were becoming more and more rare, so they did the only sensible thing: auk eggs became prized collector's items. People ventured onto rocky islands solely to harvest them for wealthy Europeans. This had a decidedly negative effect on the auk population.
In 1840, the last auk in Great Britain was beaten to death with a stick by three men who thought it was a witch, blaming it for an oncoming storm.
This limited the auk population to just one known site, an inaccessible rock off the coast of Iceland. When a volcanic eruption destroyed that site, they moved to Eldey Island, which humans could access. Science, realizing the auk was doomed, began harvesting the last few auks for their skins so they'd have something to display in museums. Seriously. It is not known whether these museums were gob-smackingly stupid, facing the inevitable, or understood the value of scarcity.
In 1844, merchants still did not see the flaw in the whole "collect auk specimens" idea, and sent three Icelanders to kill the last known breeding pair. And its egg. To this day, the great auk is only animal whose reason for extinction is "just to be dicks."
And the birds didn't have it easy while they were alive, either. Here's an account from an English sailor on how they harvested the birds:
If you come for their Feathers you do not give yourself the trouble of killing them, but lay hold of one and pluck the best of the Feathers. You then turn the poor Penguin adrift, with his skin half naked and torn off, to perish at his leasure. This is not a very humane method but it is the common practize. While you abide on this island you are in the constant practize of horrid cruelties for you not only skin them Alive, but you burn them Alive also to cook their Bodies with. You take a kettle with you into which you put a Penguin or two, you kindle a fire under it, and this fire is absolutely made of the unfortunate Penguins themselves. Their bodys being oily soon produce a Flame; there is no wood on the island.
Half-plucked, left to perish in the cold, and cooked in the remains of our brethren. Providence seems more like the fuel in this metaphor, having joined the Catholic 7, leaving others of us alive to suffer a little longer. But as Big East members, we're both equally dead.