10 Tragic Stories of Extinct Animals

Drawing depicting the Great Auk, from the book 'Birds of America' by John James Audubon.
Drawing depicting the Great Auk, from the book 'Birds of America' by John James Audubon.
John James Audubon, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

A Roman mosaic of the extinct Atlas bear.
A Roman mosaic of the extinct Atlas bear.
The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

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

A mounted Carolina parakeet
James St. John, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

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

A Dusky Seaside Sparrow outside on a branch
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

4. GRAVENCHE

A drawing of a gravenche, an extinct freshwater fish
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Study of a great auk, circa 1910.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

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

Three Heath Hens
Game Birds, Wild-Fowl and Shore Birds of Massachusetts and Adjacent States, Massachusetts State Board Agriculture, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

A stuffed passenger pigeon up for auction.
Rob Stothard, Getty Images

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

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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."

10. WARRAH

The warrah, or Falkland Island wolf or fox
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

YouTube Star Coyote Peterson Brings 'Misunderstood' Animals to His New Animal Planet Series

Animal Planet
Animal Planet

As host of the popular YouTube series Brave Wilderness, Coyote Peterson is no stranger to going face-to-face with creatures many deem terrifying—think great white sharks and pit vipers—but that he says are simply "misunderstood."

Animals have always been a big part of Peterson's life, even before he made a career out of being stung and bitten by ferocious critters. The Ohio native studied video production and directing at Ohio State University, and then decided to combine his two passions—film and all things wild—to teach viewers about wildlife and the importance of conservation. His YouTube channel currently has more than 15 million subscribers.

Now Peterson is embarking on a new adventure with Animal Planet in the show Brave the Wild. He'll travel all over the world with wildlife biologist Mario Aldecoa and his crew, sharing creatures that aren't often in the spotlight and that viewers may find a little frightening. He recently chatted with Mental Floss about the importance of conservation, his thing for snapping turtles, and his close encounter with a jaguar and her three cubs.

You’ve said your love of animals started with snapping turtles. Can you talk about the first time you saw one and what about them fascinated you so much?

The first snapping turtle I caught was when I was only 8 years old. I was always fascinated with turtles, because at first glance they look prehistoric, almost dinosaur-like. Growing up in Ohio, I never got to see any "exotic" animals. My favorite thing to watch on TV was Steve Irwin. Watching him wrestle crocs is what inspired me to catch my first snapping turtle, the most dangerous animal Ohio has to offer.

Coyote Peterson with a gigantic snapping turtle
Animal Planet

In Brave the Wild, you introduce animals that are often feared or misunderstood. What's the importance in exposing viewers to these creatures?

One of my goals through this series was to inspire people to overcome their fears of these seemingly dangerous animals and learn to admire them from a safe distance. The more you understand these creatures, the less you are afraid of them. One of the messages I try to convey in every episode is the importance of conservation.

What’s the most "misunderstood" creature you've encountered?

The most misunderstood creature that comes to mind is the carpet shark, which we filmed in season one. As I always say, people’s biggest fears are the three S’s (sharks, snakes and spiders). The carpet shark is found off the coast of Australia. They only bite humans in the case of mistaken identity. To some of these sharks a person’s foot might look like a fish. Any time you enter a new environment you need to be aware of what you need to look for, not only to keep yourself safe, but the animal as well.

What goes into preparing for each encounter to make sure you and the animals come out alive?

With any new expedition, you need to come into the environment knowing exactly what to expect. When encountering a new animal, I try to stay as calm as I can and have no hesitation. If I stay calm, the animal stays calm, [and] I'm creating a safer interaction for myself. I use different tactics when I encounter different animals. It also depends on whether the environment is land or in water.

How do you keep your composure on camera when you're in a potentially dangerous situation?

Any situation I find myself in, I look at it as my job. For example, I would be afraid operating a crane, because that is something I don't do. If it's part of your job, it's something that you get used to. When I do my job, I make sure I'm focused and never hesitate. Before I encounter any animal, I know what I'm going to say to the camera. I say that, for the best show, we always need to have the camera rolling so the audience can see what is happening.

Coyote Peterson with a kangaroo
Animal Planet

You were in Australia filming Brave the Wild during bushfire season. What was that like?

Visiting Australia was one of the best experiences I had filming the show. Australia is a fascinating country that has so many unique environments. We spent over 50 days in Australia and encountered more than 35 different species. We were there right before all these devastating fires started, and we got to witness the severity of the drought and all the different animals it impacted.

What was your favorite animal encounter in upcoming series?

Each encounter I have in the wild is special. I would have to say that the most exciting moment for me was when we were filming in Brazil and I saw a jaguar and three of her cubs up close. Not only did I get to see this in real life, but my amazing team was able to capture this special moment on tape. It is just so amazing seeing these animals survive and thrive in the wild while dealing with not only the dangers of the wild but human encroachment as well. Hands down, this was my favorite episode that we got to film.

Catch new episodes of Brave the Wild on Animal Planet, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

10 Secrets of Seeing Eye Dog Trainers

Seeing Eye instructors with the dogs they are training.
Seeing Eye instructors with the dogs they are training.
The Seeing Eye

Founded in 1929, The Seeing Eye is a nonprofit in Morristown, New Jersey, that trains guide dogs to help their blind owners navigate the world safely. In order to make sure each dog is ready for all the obstacles and challenges that come with leading the visually impaired, instructors train them in both real-world settings and simulations at The Seeing Eye's campus. It's a system that has worked for over 90 years.

“It’s the oldest guide dog school, and we’ve been honing this very specific process of training a dog to do very specific tasks,” Brian O’Neal, a guide dog mobility instructor with The Seeing Eye for nine years, tells Mental Floss. “We have a road map.”

Seeing Eye dogs are venerated; in January 2020, New Jersey proclaimed them the official state dog. And legally, no guide dog can even be called a "Seeing Eye dog" unless it graduated from the school itself. Though the dogs that come out of the school have garnered plenty of attention, the dedicated instructors who prepare them for working life are less well-known. We spoke with three trainers from The Seeing Eye about why certain breeds make great guide dogs, how they keep their owner’s safe from low-hanging branches, and whether or not they can read cross signals (spoilers: They can’t).

1. It takes years of apprentice work to become a Seeing Eye Instructor.

Being a Seeing Eye instructor isn't a volunteer position anyone can sign up for—it's a full-time job. If you meet the basic requirements, such as having a four-year Bachelor’s degree, you can apply to become an instructor. Once you make it through the application process, you go through a three-year apprenticeship program in order to become an official trainer. The apprenticeship includes classes and exams, as well as hands-on training with dogs and students, The Seeing Eye’s name for blind people preparing to become guide dog owners.

The work doesn’t become any less intense when apprentices graduate to full-fledged instructors. From 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., they train, exercise, and care for eight dogs total—four in the morning and four in the afternoon. If you aren’t ready to commit to working for The Seeing Eye full-time, you can volunteer to be a puppy raiser and foster future guide dogs in your own home.

2. Seeing Eye dog instructors also train the dog owners.

The dogs and their trainers aren’t the only ones working hard at The Seeing Eye. Before a blind person can take a guide dog home, they must live on the campus and go through weeks of training to learn all the intricacies of working with their dog, including navigation and bonding.

“A student is someone who’s applied to our school and [has] been accepted to our program, and we’ve flown them here or provided travel to come here,” O’Neal explains. “We match them with a dog, and over 27 days, we teach them how to safely and effectively work with this dog and vice versa. Once they’ve completed the program, they become graduates.” But to get there, the instructors, students, and their dogs have to put in long hours.

“Class is emotionally and physically exhausting," Sarah Indano, who's been in the apprenticeship program for two and a half years, tells Mental Floss. "It's like boot camp to really train these people for everything they need in a limited amount of time."

3. The Seeing Eye instructors only work with dogs bred by the organization.

The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey.
A photo of The Seeing Eye campus in Morristown, New Jersey.
The Seeing Eye

The Seeing Eye breeds all its own dogs at a center in Chester, New Jersey, and each must meet a strict set of requirements to become a part of the breeding program. “All the dogs are medically tested and their temperaments are also tested,” Ruthanne Dewey, a guide dog mobility instructor at The Seeing Eye for more than six years, tells Mental Floss. “The best of the best are selected to go into that breeding program.”

Even with the proper pedigree, not every dog the organization breeds is fit to be a guide animal. At 7 weeks old, dogs are sent to live with volunteers called puppy raisers who provide them with care and teach them basic commands. When the dogs are about 14 months old, they receive medical testing to determine if they’re fit enough to train to be guide dogs. From there, the training, which O'Neal says involves a lot of "repetition and consistency," lasts four months.

4. Instructors typically work with a handful of choice breeds.

Seeing Eye instructor with a yellow Lab.
Seeing Eye instructor Ruthanne Dewy with a yellow Lab she trained.
Seeing Eye/Ruthanne Dewy

Seeing Eye dogs almost always belong to the following groups: Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, German shepherds, or any mix of those breeds. Both physically and personality-wise, these breeds produce the best dogs for the job. “They are working breeds,” O’Neal says. “They have a long history of work and working alongside humans in varying capacities. So it comes down to their drive to work as well as their incredible temperament.”

This drive to work often translates to a desire to please their humans. As O’Neal states, trainers can only teach dogs so much, and an animal’s need to keep their owner happy is what ultimately allows them to do their job well. “They want to get the praise from that person. They want to figure out, ‘what does this person want me to do? Because I’ll do it.’”

These breeds also fit the physical requirements for a guide animal: They’re big enough to lead a person down the street or block them from traffic, but at the same time, small enough to fit on public transportation or beneath an office desk.

5. Praise is crucial during the training process.

Seeing Eye dogs may not know the directions to the supermarket, but they're trained to learn other tasks that enable their owners to move through their environments with confidence and security. These include stopping short of curbs, moving around objects, and blocking people from walking in front of vehicles. Dogs learn these skills through positive reinforcement—as much as it takes to make the behaviors second-nature.

“When the dog does something right, we’re showering it with love and affection telling it did a great job, and if it didn’t do a great job, we’re telling it ‘no, we don’t do it that way,’ and we’ll always go back and give them the chance to be successful,” O’Neal explains. “That’s important, because if we just said 'no' and moved on, I could see animals being discouraged by that."

6. Seeing Eye instructors can’t teach dogs to read street signs.

Seeing Eye instructor with a black Lab.
Seeing Eye instructor Brian O'Neal with a black Lab he trained.
Seeing Eye/Brian O'Neal

A Seeing Eye dog can navigate obstacles on a sidewalk, or stop a person from stumbling off a curb, but Seeing Eye instructors can't train them to replace a GPS. “I get asked all the time how the dog can read the stop light and know that green means go and red means stop,” Dewey says. “I always explain to people that it is not the dog that decides when to cross the street. The dog doesn’t know how to get to the grocery store. All that falls on the person. The blind person has to be able to cross the street safely.”

7. The Seeing Eye has escalators and Priuses on campus to simulate real-world obstacles.

The more advanced stages of Seeing Eye dog training take place in urban areas, starting in the center of Morristown and culminating in trips to New York City. But before the dogs are ready to enter the real world, trainers find ways to recreate those environments on the campus.

“We have our own maintenance department and mechanic that is in charge of our own fleet of vehicles,” O'Neal says. These cars are used to prepare dogs for the type of traffic they'll encounter when guiding their owners in public. “We also have Priuses so we can make sure the dogs are learning to steer clear of cars that are silent as well.”

The campus also has plenty of indoor obstacles designed for training, like staircases and an escalator that's housed on the grounds.

8. Some obstacles require some surprising training equipment.

Training a dog to look out for objects in front of it—like cars or pedestrians—is fairly straightforward. Making sure they’re aware of obstacles above ground-level poses more of a challenge to instructors. For these lessons, trainers use some unexpected equipment. “We have an obstacle course with overhead pool noodles that stick out to make sure the dogs are watching out for the top part of the person, too,” O'Neal says.

Instructors don’t know what size a dog’s owner will be during the training process, but that hasn't been a problem so far. Incredibly, the dogs are able to figure out the height and width of their humans on their own. “If you’re an instructor that’s really short, but that dog goes to a person that’s really tall, that dog quickly learns and adapts that they have to look out for [obstacles] that are much higher,” O'Neal says. “To me that’s one of the most amazing parts of the job; how much the dogs adapt and do on their own that we don’t teach them and can’t teach them.”

9. Seeing Eye apprentices take classes on the human eye to learn more about visual impairments.

Every instructor’s apprenticeship includes courses on dogs and dog training, but they also take classes to learn about the vision issues faced by the students. “I’m currently studying for my second exam, which is on the human eye and diseases and disorders of the eye and optic nerve,” Indano says, likening these classes to a college course. “It gives us the basis of the language we use to communicate with our students. We’re reminded that not only do our students see us as dog professionals, but they also see us as vision professionals, as well.”

This level of understanding is made even greater during Blindfold Week—which exactly what it sounds like. “We wear a completely dark blindfold for one week, and we live with the students for the first week of class,” Indano says. “We’re given some prep on how to effectively use a cane for travel for the first two days of class, and are taught how to cross streets, how to judge traffic, and keep ourselves safe."

The apprentices are even paired with a dog during Blindfold Week, effectively putting them through the same training as the students. "It gives you a lot of insight into what these students are going through," Indano says.

10. Seeing Eye instructors don't prepare dogs to work 24/7.

Seeing Eye instructor with a black Lab.
Seeing Eye instructor Sarah Indano with a black Lab she trained.
Seeing Eye/Sarah Indano

Seeing Eye dogs don’t have the time to chase squirrels, accept pets from strangers, or sniff trash cans when they’re on the job, but that doesn’t mean they never get to enjoy being a regular dog.

“People think these dogs don’t ever get a break,” Indano says. “They put on their business suits, which for them is their harness, and they’re at work. When they go home, their business suit comes off, and they get to be a dog that their person can snuggle and give pets to and play fetch with ... They live and love to work for their owners, and they get to go home and get even more love.”

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