March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Posts Tagged ‘History of Science

Jack Woggin

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Last post we introduced the term “woggin”.  Now on to the story of a particular one: Jack Woggin was perhaps the most beloved penguin of the whaling era. His tale is recorded in the 1800s publication “Sailor’s Magazine and Naval Journal” by an anonymous contributor. The story begins with a chance encounter in a somewhat gruesome setting.  In 1827, the ship Triton was sailing off the coast of Brazil on a three year whaling cruise. A whale had just been killed, and the crew was embroiled in the work of processing the carcass, which involves slicing off the blubber and then cooking it to render it into oil – a noxious task if ever there was one.  Up through the sea, red and foamy with blood, came a penguin, which promptly tried to scramble up the dead whale’s back. A sailor clambered down onto the whale and held out his hand, and the penguin fearlessly jumped over to be taken aboard. Although the penguin is listed as Aptenodytes (the genus including King and Emperor Penguins), Olson and Lund (2007) commented that it is more likely the penguin was from the species Spheniscus magellanicus (Magellanic Penguin) which is the only resident penguin species in the area today.  Given the generally poor knowledge and hodgepodge of naming schemes for penguins in the early 1800s, there is little doubt this interpretation is correct.

Sailors have never been known for their kind treatment of flightless birds, and the crew first decided that they should slay the penguin and make its skin into a purse! However, one sailor convinced the others to instead toss the penguin back overboard.  The crew, supplied with grog, again began the hard work of processing the whale carcass.  A short time later though, the penguin returned, again clambering to be brought aboard the ship.  Up he was hoisted, at the captain’s order. Quickly, he became a favorite of the ship and was dubbed Jack Woggin (“woggin” being a sailor’s term for penguins and auks).  He fell in well with the whaling life, approaching when called, eating from sailor’s hands, and patiently waiting for calm intervals during which he was placed in the water to hunt fish, promptly returning to the ship after each diving session. Apparently, he felt himself of high rank for he would not walk before the mast (the domain of the common sailor).

One day, Jack Woggin was enjoying one of his feeding excursions when a sudden storm came up.  The ship was driven miles from the penguin drop-off point, and all feared him lost. Yet, only a few hours had passed after the storm ceased when a cry of “Jack Woggin is in site!” rang out from the lookout. Back aboard he came, shaking off the rough ocean waters he had bravely plunged through. For three months, the penguin was a source of joy for all.  Sadly, he was done in by an ill advised kindness. One day he strolled up to the captain asking for food, and instead of his usual “freshened” (water-soaked) slice of beef he was given straight “salt junk”, which is as unappetizing as it sounds.  In just two hours he was dead.  This was attributed to the saltiness of the unsoaked meat, but I suspect it may have been food poisoning from a spoiled piece of meat that did him in, because penguins are extremely efficient at removing salt from their systems – so much so that they can drink sea water. A sad end for a good friend.

Jack Woggin’s tale is thought-provoking because adult penguins are typically not very interested in humans. The average wild penguin is likely to reward being picked up with a sharp bite.  However, juvenile penguins (at least in zoos) tend to be fascinated by people. I have seen a young penguin swim wildly around a human keeper trying to steal their microphone or earn some pats on the head while a dozen adults stand around without even deigning to glance over.  This makes me think that Jack Woggin could have been a young penguin on its first ocean voyage, though the truth is probably lost to history.


Anonymous. 1832. Jack Woggin, the domesticated penguin. Sailors Magazine and Naval Journal 4: 27-28.

Olson, S.L. and J.N. Lund. 2007. Whalers and woggins: a new vocabulary for interpreting some early accounts of the great auk and penguins. Archives of Natural History 34: 69-78.

Written by Dan Ksepka

May 31, 2013 at 5:01 pm

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What’s a Woggin?

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Penguins have been called many things over the centuries.  Maori named the Yellow-eyed Penguin of New Zealand the Hoiho, which means “noisemaker” in reference to its loud call. Aboriginal Australians named the Little Blue Penguin “gur-roo-mul”.  In Swahili, a penguin might be called “ndege ya nchi za baridi” meaning “big cold country bird”.  This last version gave rise to the scientific name Dege hendeyi for one of South Africa’s four Pliocene fossil penguin species.  Besides having lots of different names, there has been historical confusion over the word “penguin” itself, and it has been applied both to true penguin and to the recently extinct Great Auk in historical accounts.

One name that historians of ornithology seem to have overlooked until recently is “woggin”.  This name appears in many whaler’s writings during the 1700s and 1800s, and is variously spelled wogæn, waggin, wargan, wargin, waugin, wogen, woggin, woging, woglin, or yawgin.  In 2007, Storrs Olson and Judith Lund published a paper cataloging the various records of this name.  It appears to have been applied to penguins and auks, and it is not too surprising that sailors might confuse two types of black and white feathered, flippered, flightless diving birds. Apparently the word fell out of favor by the era of the Civil War and was until now lost to history. By checking the geographical coordinates associated with each use of “woggin” (usually readily available in ship’s records), the authors were able to pinpoint which references applied to Great Auks, which only occurred in the Northern Hemisphere, and which applied to penguins (which live in the Southern Hemisphere, aside from the equatorial Galapagos Penguin).

Why should we care?  Beyond helping us interpret historical records, uncovering the word woggin can help us understand extinct birds. Luckily, no penguins have gone extinct since the whaling era, but the Great Auk was tragically wiped out by humans in the 1840s or 1850s. We know very little about this bird because few ornithologists conducted studies while it was still alive. Most human encounters therefor took place when the auks were on shore nesting in North Atlantic islands.  However, during the rest of the year Great Auks appear to have roamed far and wide in the ocean.  For example, a sailor’s log from the sloop Sandwich reports that on May 10th 1762, “wogæns” were sighted off the outer banks of North Carolina. Such records can help us recreate migration patterns and shed more light on this remarkable vanished bird’s ecology.

Drawing of a woggin from

Drawing of a woggin from Beane (1905), after a figure from Olson and Lund (2007).


Beane, J. F. 1905. From forecastle to cabin. New York: The Editor Publishing Co.

Olson, S.L. and J.N. Lund. 2007. Whalers and woggins: a new vocabulary for interpreting some early accounts of the great auk and penguins. Archives of Natural History 34: 69-78.

Written by Dan Ksepka

April 30, 2013 at 5:23 am

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Latham’s Woolly Penguin

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Today we have largely settled on 19 species in our attempts to classify the living penguins.  New fossil species are found every year, but it has been a very long time since a new species of living penguin was found.  In the late 1700s and early 1800s, when most penguin species were formally given scientific names, the pace of discovery was faster and the race to name species resulted in some taxonomic slovenliness.

As western naturalists began to explore farther reaches of the oceans, more penguin species were added to the scientific catalog of species, but some species were named more than once.  In fact, some were named a dozen times or more! Naturalists “rediscovering” a penguin species already known to science may have thought they had come upon a new species because they were unaware of the published record, which was much more difficult to keep abreast of in a time without internet searches or even  telephones, or because they mistook  males and females, or young and old birds, or breeding and non-breeding birds for separate species.  The King Penguin was officially entered into the scientific literature as Aptenodytes patagonicus in 1778.  Latecomers attempted to dub King Penguins with such monikers as Aptenodytes longirostris, Aptenodytes patachonica, and Aptenodytes pennant over the next few decadesPerhaps the strangest name was Penguinarium patachonica – the genus name sounds more like a wondrous bubble-domed penguin-themed park than an animal.  The King Penguin also missed out on having the envy inspiring name “A-rex” when Aptenodytes rex was suggested (almost a century late to the table) by the Charles Bonaparte, an ornithologist who happened to be cousin to Napoleon III.

My favorite story of discovering the already known is that of Latham’s Woolly Penguin.  Explorers happened upon a creche or juvenile King Penguins in the 1800s, during the phase in the species reproductive cycle when all the adults have left the colony to replenish themselves at sea while the juveniles stand about on the shore and survive for several weeks off fat stores.  Apparently these juveniles were mistaken for a new species.  Certainly they look very different than the adults – more like big brown bags of leaves than tuxedoed penguins.   If you stop to think about it, however, this imagined species biology must have seemed strange.  What were all these penguins eating on their little scrap of wind-blown island?  Bugs? Pebbles? Sand?  It must have been something, given the juveniles can weigh more than the adults at the start of their fasting phase.  And why had they lost flight but not gained seaworthiness?  I’m not sure if these questions intrigued Latham as he jotted down the entry for the Woolly Penguin in his book.

A juvenile and adult King Penguin. Photo from flick:

Of course, it was only a matter of time before the error was recognized, and Woolly Penguins are no longer counted when penguin species role calls are taken.  King Penguins still retain a diverse wardrobe of names in common speech – many languages have their own non-scientific name for King Penguins, and some are quite delightful: for example Königspinguin (German), Kongepingvin (Danish), Rí-phiongain (Gaelic) and Le Manchot Royal (French). 


Latham J. 1821. General History of Birds. London: Winchester,
Jacob and Johnson.

Written by Dan Ksepka

June 23, 2011 at 5:01 pm