10 Tragic Stories of Extinct Animals
The tale of the dodo is one of the most famous stories of extinction in all natural history. Native only to the tiny island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the birds had never learned any reason to be fearful of humans, so when European explorers first began to visit the island in the 17th century, the dodos were apparently so unsuspecting they could be picked up by hand straight from the wild and killed. Although the dodo was never a particularly numerous species (the fact that it was flightless made it susceptible to floods and forest fires, which apparently kept its population naturally low), within less than a century of its discovery, interference by humans had led to its extinction. But it's by no means alone—the stories behind the disappearance of 10 other creatures are listed here.
1. ATLAS BEAR
The Atlas bear was the only species of bear native to Africa, and once inhabited the area around the Atlas Mountains in the far northwest of the continent. The bear's lengthy demise can be traced all the way back to the time of the Roman Empire, when the animals were not only hunted for sport but captured, brought back to Rome, and made to battle gladiators and execute criminals in a gruesome spectacle known as damnatio ad bestias. Numbers continued to fall throughout the Middle Ages, when great swaths of forest in northern Africa were felled for timber, until finally the last surviving wild Atlas bear was shot and killed in the mid-1800s.
2. CAROLINA PARAKEET
The Carolina parakeet was once the only species of parrot native to the United States, found across a vast expanse of the country from New York in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south and the Rocky Mountains in the west. Excessive hunting and trapping meant that the birds had already become rare by the 19th century, but large, isolated flocks were still being recorded until as recently as the early 1900s. Sadly the birds were known for their altruistic habit of flocking to attend to dead or dying members of the same flock—so if only a few birds were felled by hunters, many of the rest of the flock would remain nearby, making themselves easy targets. The last known specimen died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918, and the species was finally declared extinct in 1939.
3. DUSKY SEASIDE SPARROW
In 1963, a decision was made by NASA to flood a vast area of marshland on Merritt Island in eastern Florida as a means of controlling the mosquito population around the Kennedy Space Center. Sadly, Merritt Island was also one of the last strongholds of the dusky seaside sparrow, a small dark-colored songbird, and when the land was flooded, so too was the sparrows’ main breeding ground. Drainage of the marshes around the St. Johns River for a highway project also contributed to habitat loss. The birds' population collapsed, and in the years that followed, the species struggled to regain its numbers. By 1979, only five birds—all males—remained in the wild, and the sparrow was finally declared extinct in 1990.
The gravenche was a species of freshwater fish native only to Lake Geneva, one of the Alpine lakes that straddle the border between France and Switzerland. The fish were apparently once so common in the lake that it alone accounted for two-thirds of all of the fish caught in Lake Geneva. Due to overfishing, the population of gravenche (Coregonus hiemalis) began to decrease rapidly in the early 20th century; the last known sighting was in 1950, and the species is now considered extinct.
5. GREAT AUK
The penguin-like great auk was a large, flightless seabird once native to the entire North Atlantic Ocean, from Greenland and eastern Canada to the British Isles and the westernmost coasts of Europe. The birds were highly prized for their light and fluffy down, which was used as a stuffing for pillows and mattresses. And like the dodo, the fact that the birds were flightless made hunting and capturing them easy. The European population was almost entirely eradicated by the late 1600s, leading to one of the earliest environmental protection laws in history, passed by the British Parliament in 1770s, that prohibited killing the auks in Great Britain. Sadly, it was too late. As the birds became scarcer, demand for their feathers, meat and pelts increased, and the last two breeding birds were unceremoniously strangled to death on their nest by a pair of Icelandic hunters in 1844, while a third man stamped on the single egg that the female had been incubating.
6. HEATH HEN
Like the great auk, the North American heath hen was also the subject of an early protective bill, introduced to New York State legislature in 1791, but it too failed to save the species from extinction. Heath hens were once native to much of the northeast United States, and were so plentiful that their meat eventually gained a reputation for being "poor man's food." Nonetheless they continued to be hunted in such vast numbers that by the mid-1800s there were no hens at all left on the entire American mainland. The bird's final stronghold was Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, but illegal poaching, diseases carried by domestic poultry, and predation from feral cats caused numbers on the island to fall to less than 100 by the mid-1890s. A hunting ban and a specialized Heath Hen Reserve were introduced in 1908, and in response the population swelled to over 2000 in the years that followed. But a fire during the 1916 breeding season undid all of the reserve's hard work, and by 1927 there were only 12 birds—including just two females—left alive. The last lone male, nicknamed "Booming Ben" by the locals, died in 1932.
7. JAPANESE SEA LION
The 8-foot-long Japanese sea lion—an even larger cousin of the Californian sea lion—was once native to the Sea of Japan and bred in vast numbers along the beaches of the Japanese islands and the Korean mainland. Sadly, the animals were hunted in enormous numbers, but not for the reason you might think: Their meat was poor quality and bad-tasting, so they weren't hunted for food, but rather for their skins (which were used to make leather), their bones (which were used in traditional medicines), their fat (which was rendered to make oil for oil lamps), and even their whiskers (which were used to make brushes and pipe cleaners). As recently as the early 1900s, more than 3000 sea lions were being killed every year in Japan, until the population collapsed to less than 50 individuals in 1915. Numbers remained low until the 1940s, when the maritime battles of the Second World War destroyed the last remaining colonies and much of their natural habitat. The last recorded (but unconfirmed) sighting was in 1974.
8. PASSENGER PIGEON
Until as recently as the early 1800s, the passenger pigeon was still considered the most numerous bird in all of North America. Individual flocks could contain in excess of a billion individual birds, and would take more than an hour to fly overhead. But as a hugely plentiful source of cheap meat, the birds were hunted in unprecedented numbers: At one nesting site in Michigan in 1878, as many as 50,000 birds were killed every day for nearly five months, and the last surviving flock of 250,000 birds was killed in its entirety by one group of hunters in a single day in 1896. The final individual bird—a female named Martha, who was being held in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo—died in 1914.
9. STEPHENS ISLAND WREN
Stephens Island is a tiny half-mile islet lying in the seas between the two main islands of New Zealand. After a lighthouse was built there in 1892, the local lighthouse keeper's cat, Tibbles, caught a bird that the keeper didn't recognize. He sent the specimen to a renowned New Zealand ornithologist named Walter Buller, and the bird was soon declared a new species—the Stephens Island wren—and identified as one of only a handful of flightless perching birds known to science. Sadly, within just three years of its discovery, the species was extinct. According to popular history, Tibbles the cat was singlehandedly responsible for killing off the entire population of the wrens (in which case, Tibbles would be the only individual creature in history responsible for the extinction of an entire species), but in reality, by the late 1890s, Stephens Island was so overrun with feral cats that it is impossible to say that Tibbles alone was responsible: In February 1895, the lighthouse keeper wrote in a letter that "the cats have become wild and are making sad havoc among all the birds."
The warrah, or Falkland Islands wolf, was a unique species of wolf that was once the only mammal species native to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. It's thought that the species became trapped on the islands during the last Ice Age, when the Falklands were connected to the South American mainland by an ice bridge that left the animals isolated when it melted. After the Falkland Islands were first settled by humans in the 1760s, the wolves were seen as a threat to livestock and were quickly hunted into extinction. The warrah was already rare by the time Charles Darwin visited the Falklands in 1833, and he ominously predicted that, "within a very few years … this fox will be classed with the dodo as an animal which has perished from the face of the earth." Like the dodo, the warrah had never had to learn to be fearful of humans, and with no trees or forests on the island in which to hide, the wolves proved easy targets. The last individual was killed in 1876.
This story was first published in 2014.