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 stone compounds into which the auks were driven before being slaughtered for their down.
It was more than 30 years before the next scientist visited. In 1875, the British geologist John Muir, 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 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
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 total.
In the early 1950s, scientific ornithology got its 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 – 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 dependent on direct observations of birds on land. But seabirds are primarily marine animals that spend most their lives on the ocean. With the invention and miniaturization of bird-borne tracking devices, it became possible to study the behavior of seabirds in their own environment. This has led to many new studies that have revolutionized our understanding of seabirds and the marine environment.
Over the decades, some research highlights and collaborators include:
- Great Auk skeletons for museums (Henri Ouellett, John Maunder)
- Great Auk dietary relationships (Keith Hobson)
- Great Auk body size variation in the North Atlantic (Gary Burness)
- Establishment and growth of the Fulmar colony (Iain Stenhouse, Stefan Garthe)
- Gannet feeding ecology and fishery signals (Ram Myers, Julie Porter, Ian Kirkham)
- Ocean climate and seabird ecology (Ram Myers, Gail Davoren, Stefan Garthe)
- Gannet predation on Atlantic salmon (David Cairns)
- Gannet energetics (Vicky Friesen, David Cairns)
- Puffin diets (Janet Russell)
- Gannet foraging activity (Stefan Garthe)
- Murre, Gannet and Razorbill population genetics (Vicky Friesen)
- Murre signals of capelin condition (Gail Davoren, Alejandro Buren, Chantelle Burke)
- Seabird and fish interactions (Gail Davoren, Stefan Garthe, Paul Regular, April Hedd)
- Gannet migration (Dave Fifield, Chantelle Burke)
- Murre migration and ecology (Chantelle Burke, April Hedd, Laura McFarlane)
- Murre foraging (Chantelle Burke, April Hedd, Laura McFarlane, Paul Regular, Kara Gerrow)
- Ongoing longest dietary data of Murres and Gannets (Seth Bennett)
- Seabird risk assessments (April Hedd, Laura McFarlane, Paul Regular)
- Ongoing murre migration studies