Extinct: a selection of lost animals and how we wiped them out

Over the past few centuries, humans have been responsible for an astonishing decline in the abundance and diversity of the world’s wildlife.

Today the rate of extinction is thought to be as rapid as 15–20 species per day, and new warnings about the dangers of ecological collapse seem to appear almost every week. But human-induced extinction is far from a modern phenomenon. We have hunted, persecuted and exploited wild animals for centuries, first with spears and primitive weapons and then with industrial technologies.

Most species have survived this onslaught, but many have been lost to history forever. Here’s a few I have been looking into for The Nature Room podcast.

Dodo (Raphus cucullatus)

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Credit: Ballista (under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

Having been variously described as a flightless albatross, a small ostrich and even a ground-dwelling vulture, it was scientists working in the mid 1850s who finally established that the (by then) long-lost dodo had in fact been a kind of “ground pigeon”.

Endemic to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the large, flightless dodo was extremely vulnerable to predation by the Dutch settlers who landed there in the late 1500s.

As it was widely believed that mankind could not cause the extinction of any of God’s creatures, it took almost 200 years for the dodo to be declared as having been wiped out completely around the time of the last sighting in 1662.

Naturalists continued to believe that there must be dodos somewhere, hiding in forests or on unexplored islands. Some posited that the dodo had in fact never existed at all and the remains were a fabrication.

It was George Cuvier, now recognised as the father of modern palaeontology, who finally determined both that the bird had existed and that it had gone extinct. Cuvier was operating during a time of a Victorian obsession with natural history, when collectors were funding expeditions to the furthest reaches of the European empires.

It wasn’t just hunting that doomed the dodo. The bird was an early victim of invasive species introduced by humans, and habitat loss as a result of colonisation. The dodo was an early warning of how a convergence of different pressures could bring about the loss of an entire species.

The realisation that the bird had been lost completely turned it into an icon, helped along by an appearance in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Steller’s Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas)

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Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

Vitus Bering’s Great Northern Expedition was one of the most ambitious of the European projects of global exploration. Leaving Russia in 1741 and mapping out much of the Arctic and Pacific, Bering and his crew were passing through the Commander Islands in (what is now called) the Bering Sea when their ship collided with a reef off Bering Island.

Shipwrecked, the sailors would spend a year of considerable hardship on the island, with many dying of scurvy and at one point drinking their own blood having gained permission from the ship’s physician. Having exhausted the ship’s supplies of food, the sailors turned to the island’s marine mammals, and the sea cow in particular.

The notes of the ship’s onboard naturalist, George Wilhelm Steller, make up the bulk of our knowledge of this animal, which appears to have been a large, slow, social creature, in many ways similar to its closest living relative, the dugong, Steller’s Sea Cow was the only other species in the genus dugongidae, it was a docile and unafraid of humans, making it an easy meal for the desperate sailors.

Steller tells us that the besieged sea cows would come to the rescue of their harpooned relatives, on one occasion successfully removing the harpoon from a large male. He also tell us that the sea cow was extremely popular with his shipwrecked contemporaries, and was “tasty” and a “pleasure to eat”.

Just 27 years after its discovery, sealers and fur traders would do for Steller’s Sea Cow what earlier Dutch merchants had done for the dodo and this lineage of dugongidae was lost to history. Only a handful of skeletons remain.

The Gray Whales of the North Atlantic (Eschrichtius robustus)

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Sound travels further underwater and the seas are not always quiet places. The accounts of European explorers tell us of seas that were once home to millions of whales, now something we can only image.

For a millennia, the calls of gray whales would have been heard in much of the coastal North Atlantic, but finally fell silent in the 18th century.

Like most species of their size, there was never a significant number of North Atlantic grays, but their range was huge. Recent studies have suggested this population could be found off the coast of Gibraltar, Southampton, Florida, with the whales migrating to seasonal feeding and breeding grounds.

Technically a lost population, rather than a lost species, the gray whales succumbed to a thriving Scottish and North American whaling industry. At this time, products from whales were used in almost every conceivable household product, from lamp oil to corsets, the dependency on oil to power lighting was so .

It was a dangerous but profitable industry that was part of British and American life for many centuries and in the next two centuries it would drive most of the larger whale species to the very brink of extinction.

Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)

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Few people enjoying a walk on Scotland’s coast today know that it is missing a fascinating animal — a charismatic, large, flightless seabird that is Britain’s very own dodo.

In July 1840, Britain’s last Great Auks were killed on the island of St Kilda. Having been captured alive, the islanders decided the auks were witches that had brought on a storm and were promptly stoned to death.

The demise of the auk is one of the saddest episodes in the history of our interactions with nature. The auks went from flocks of millions to a single breeding pair, caught by Icelandic fishermen in June 1844, the very last egg was accidentally crushed in the effort to capture and kill the adults.

Surprisingly, some of the earliest legislation to protect any animal was written to save the auk, first in 1553 and then 1794 in Britain and in Canada, where you could be publicly flogged for killing an auk for its feathers. When hunting them became illegal, their prices soared. Once they were extinct, the few remaining eggs and taxidermic specimens were worth millions.

Passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius)

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Image: public domain

The idea that the passenger pigeon might go extinct would have seemed extraordinary to the Americans who once spoke of flocks of many millions blocking out the sky as the pigeons migrated across the North Eastern United States. Writing in 1813, the celebrated American ornithologist John James Audubon told his readers: “The light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.”

Each of these great migrations coincided with a mass shooting of the birds, both for food and for feathers.

The speed with which the passenger pigeon then went extinct was phenomenal. Scientists now believe the species was prone to “cycles of boom and bust” without human interference but even so, reducing a population of around three billion to zero within a few decades is remarkable even by the standards of today’s extinctions.

The very last passenger pigeon was named after George Washington’s wife, Martha, and died at Cincinnati Zoo on 1st September 1914. The last wild passenger pigeon is believed to have been shot 13 years earlier.

Today, the passenger pigeon is at the focus of efforts to bring back lost species through gene editing techniques, with some scientists hoping to have a hybrid passenger pigeon in the next 10 years.

Quagga (Equus quagga quagga)

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Image: public domain

A sub-species of the plains zebra, the quagga looked almost identical to modern zebras, apart from their stripes, which appear to run out before they got to its hind legs.

On a genetic level, they are so similar to their surviving cousins that an innovative South African project is working to restore the species through a process known as “back breeding”. As the name suggests, this involves repeatedly breeding plains zebras that exhibit the characteristics of the quagga (most notably the lack of hind stripes) until you have an animal that at least resembles the quagga to the best of our knowledge.

More than 30 years into “The Quagga Project”, the latest Rau Quagga in the breeding programme, an animal known as Rachel, certainly looks like the quagga pictured in Victorian era-London Zoo.

Atlas Bear (Ursus arctos crowtheri)

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Image: public domain

The only African bear to survive into modern times, the Atlas Bear finally went extinct in 1890. Like many of the other animals in this volume, the route to extinction was long and complicated.

The Romans used the Atlas bear in gladiatorial games and hunted them for fur, severely reducing their numbers. Two thousand years later, they were in high demand in 19th century zoos, where they were often the centre of circus-like exhibits. The last recorded animal is thought to have been killed in the Tetouan Mountains in 1870.

Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus)

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Image: public domain

A remarkable example of convergent evolution, the Tasmanian Tiger bore all the hallmarks of a dog-like animal but was actually a rare carnivorous marsupial. Dogs and marsupials split off from the mammalian family tree 160 million years ago but similar environmental pressures produced a Tasmanian wolf in all-but-name — the stripes on its hind gave it the nickname Tasmanian Tiger.

Rather than being exploited for fur, fuel or food, the thylacine was a victim of persecution, notably at the hands of the still extant Van Dieman Land Company, which offered bounties for hunters to kill animals that were found on its land.

60 seconds of film footage provides us with a brief glimpse into the life of this animal, one of the true icons of extinction.

Caribbean Monk Seal (Monachus tropicalis)

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Image: public domain

The Caribbean Monk Seal was first recorded by Europeans in 1494, when Christopher Columbus laid anchor at Atlas Velo, south of Hispaniola. The seals were initially slaughtered for their oil which oiled the machinery of the sugar plantations in the West Indies, and then powered lamps in the 1700s.

The practice of “sealing” decimated seal populations around the world, but only one species went extinct. Beginning with European explorers travelling to North America in the 16th and 17th centuries, seals were exploited around the world for their oil, fur and blubber. It is a largely forgotten industry that was crucial to the economy of many New World settlements.

The Caribbean Monk Seal was lost to history in 1952, its cousin, the Mediterranean Monk Seal lives on.

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