9 Tattoos of Extinct and Imperiled Species

#EcoList of Things We Love

Cybele Knowles
Center for Biological Diversity


A passenger pigeon takes wing over a forest in the eastern North America. A Steller’s sea cow, insulated by plenty of blubber, floats comfortably in the chilled waters of the Bering Sea. A Tasmanian tiger scans the Australian grassland for its prey of wallaby and wombat, potoroo and possum.

Not in real life, because all these species are extinct, but in ink. On skin.

A tattoo can be many different things: memento, memorial, reminder, promise, intention, sign of protection, declaration of love.

We set out to find people who had chosen to get tattoos of extinct and imperiled species, and we discovered they did so to remind themselves, and others, of the intrinsic value of life — of a species now gone forever or a species that may one day face the same fate. The tattoos collected here are also about love, loss and a commitment to fight for the survival of the nonhuman world in this age of the Anthropocene.

Most of the tattoos are accompanied by a statement from the wearer about what their tattoo means to them. In the case of the flying fox tattoo, the statement is from the tattoo artist.

Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius)
Conservation Status: Extinct

Sarah Baillie: “I got this tattoo of a passenger pigeon as I was finishing my undergraduate wildlife conservation program. The fate of this bird is the classic cautionary tale of why wildlife management is so important. Nineteenth-century accounts of passenger pigeons describe flocks so large and dense they darkened the skies. They were seen as easy and plentiful for hunting and were driven to extinction in less than 100 years. Most people understand that as a species’ numbers dwindle, action needs to be taken, especially if their decline is caused by humans. The passenger pigeon’s story reminds us not to wait until a species hits the point of no return.”

Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus)
Conservation Status: Extinct

Mike Powell: “I got this tattoo of a thylacine / Tasmanian tiger in late January 2013 from a man named Harrison at Black Rose Tattooers on 4th Avenue in Tucson. I hadn’t thought much about getting it — a friend was going and wanted company, so I drummed up an idea. I’d been moved by some video footage of the last thylacine, Benjamin, taken at the Hobart Zoo in Australia in 1933, three years before he died. Extinction always seemed abstract to me. I struggled to believe in dinosaurs, in dodos. At the very least, I struggled to make the leap between skeletons and artists’ renderings and the notion of a real animal in space. History had just been proven wrong too many times. (Just look at the uncertainty surrounding the brontosaurus, whether it existed as such or just as our distorted interpretation of something else.) But seeing the footage of the thylacine pacing its cage — a whole animal, moving through a world I recognized — felt final, incontrovertible, the evidentiary wallop I needed to reckon that once there was something and now there was nothing. People who see my tattoo tend to mistake it for a fox, or, more often, a dog.”

Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)
Conservation Status: Critically endangered, possibly extinct

Noah Greenwald: “The ivory-billed woodpecker was the largest woodpecker in north America and one of the largest in the world with a wingspan of roughly 30 inches. It formerly roamed primary forest across the southeastern United States, but was lost to logging, deforestation and, in the end, over-collection. The last birds were known and studied in the late 1930s in a tract of primary forest owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company in Louisiana on the Tensas River and accordingly named the Singer Tract. Appeals to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, which owned the timber rights to the Singer Tract, went unheeded and in 1944, the last female ivory-billed woodpecker was observed in a small pocket of unlogged forest surrounded by destruction. There have been a number of apparently credible sightings of ivory-billed woodpeckers since that time, but extensive surveys have failed to locate definitive evidence of any surviving populations. I chose this species for a tattoo because of its beauty and as a reminder of how much we have lost in North America through destruction of habitat.”

Steller’s Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas)
Conservation Status: Extinct

Photo by Eric Waters.

Anna Wallace: “I was raised a vegetarian and have never eaten meat. I became interested in extinct animals during high-school biology class. I started doing my own research and remember learning that the Steller’s sea cow was hunted to extinction less than 30 years after it was discovered — a heart-breaking story, and one that I believe needs to be told.”

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)
Conservation Status: Monarch butterflies across North America have declined by more than 80 percent over the past 20 years.

James Singer: “I got this tattoo because my wife Candice loves monarch butterflies so much. She plants milkweed and waits for them to visit our yard every year.”

Candice Kim: “While I was at U.C. Santa Barbara, I lived near the Ellwood Main Monarch Aggregation Site and was involved in early efforts to preserve this really exceptional habitat for migrating monarchs. It was within biking distance of my house and I’d spend hours sitting and watching the butterflies in this magical grove. The specialness of getting to witness the migration stayed with me and converted me into a lifelong monarch supporter. I think James realized how much I love monarchs when I tore out our lawn and replaced it with narrow leaf milkweed and nectar plants. I grow milkweed from seed every year and share with as many people as possible. He also understands that the butterflies hold a special significance to me as an immigrants’ rights activist!” Tattoo by Tyler Borich.

Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma)
Conservation Status: Horned lizards are disappearing throughout the U.S. Southwest. The Texas horned lizard has vanished from almost half of its geographic range.

PR Griffis: “Growing up in central Texas in the early eighties, there wasn’t much going on — cable, VCR and Atari 2600 hadn’t made their way to us yet — but there were fields to run through and scraggly stands of hackberry to rummage in. And not infrequently in all that rummaging, along with scorpions and snakes, you’d happen upon one of these spiky-headed baby dragons called horny toads. Technically, they’re a horned lizard. There was a rumor that they would, if threatened or provoked, shoot blood out of their eyes, which our biology teacher told us was a myth. Then, one day, my friend and I were apparently threatening or provoking a horny toad, and then there was a jet of blood, and then a spatter of it on my friend’s shirt, which we triumphantly took to school the next day, empirical research squarely in our favor.

“The horny toads have been having a pretty rough time of it. I cannot remember the last one I saw in the wild. Disruption of habitat, invasive fire ants, is what I hear.

“Most of the tattoos on my left arm are weaponized versions of animals that remind me of home: an armadillo with gun ports à la USS Monitor. A cicada with a giant aerial bomb strapped to his belly, ready to drop. And so it all came together pretty naturally: the horny toad shooting some kind of crystallized blood red laser beam from his eye. The tattooist, Dave at Rockwell Tattoo in Madison, Wis., was really stoked to ‘get to do something so far out.’ I was equally stoked at his design.”

African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus)
Conservation Status: Endangered

Faith Mohnke: “The first time I saw an African wild dog was on a National Geographic computer program I had when I was seven. I love dogs, and at that time I thought wolves were just about the coolest thing. When I found out there were these African wolf-like animals called ‘dogs,’ I was on board. I learned about African wild dogs with insight into their behavior and instincts. I found everything about them captivating — until I discovered that due to the decline in their habitat, these ‘painted wolves’ are an endangered species. Currently there are fewer than 6,600 left in the wild. I’ve known for 18 years that these beautiful creatures are battling to keep their place in this world. So when I had the opportunity to participate in the incredible venture of The Holocene Project and bring awareness to something bigger than all of us, I already knew which animal I wanted to honor.”

Tattoo by J. Trip. Learn more about his Holocene Project of tattooing endangered species on the bodies of wildlife-loving clients at The Revelator.

Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)
Conservation status: Recovering worldwide but still endangered in the United States.

Micah Messer: “The practice of whaling took a devastating toll on whale populations over the past century. The humpback whale in particular was almost hunted to total extinction, suffering a reduction of their global population by around 90 percent. Thankfully humpback whale populations have steadily recovered since the widespread ban of commercial whaling, but other cetacean species have not been as fortunate. Whales still face a number of growing threats including bycatch, toxic contamination, climate change, declining krill populations and noise pollution. I was inspired to get this tattoo both by my love of whales and my desire to protect and preserve these beautiful, gentle, giant creatures. I am currently pursuing a career in marine biology and ocean conservation, and would absolutely love to work directly with efforts aiding in the recovery of whale populations.” Tattoo by Bryanna Marie.

Flying Fox (Pteropus)
Conservation status: Over half of flying fox species are threatened with extinction due to hunting, deforestation, predation by invasive species and climate change.

Lisa Cardenas, tattoo artist: “Of all the misunderstood yet important creatures, bats may be at the top of the list. One of the goals I’ve always had with my artwork is to portray the misunderstood creatures of the world as beautifully as I possibly can so that other people might begin to appreciate them in a way they may not have before. By doing this, I hope I can ultimately help strengthen conservation efforts for struggling species like the fox bat.” Find more of Lisa’s work at her website, Facebook and Instagram.

Flotsam is a list of things we think are cool. Send us your ideas at flotsam@biologicaldiversity.org.