11 Species Surprisingly Close to Extinction

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When we think of animals that are in trouble, we imagine exotic creatures from far-flung places, animals we'd only see in nature documentaries. Yet a number of species struggling to survive are shockingly familiar—and they need our help, too.


We've all heard the slogan, "Don't mess with Texas." Alas, plenty of people do mess with relatives of the nine-banded armadillo, the state's official small mammal. Though the nine-banded 'dillo thrives in the U.S. and Mexico, 20 other species in its native South America aren't so lucky. The giant armadillo, among others, is dying out due to habitat loss, hunting, and even capture for the pet trade. Extinction would be tragic not just for conservationists and the species itself, but also for some 25 other animals that live in its burrows.


Don't worry: The beloved housecat is purrfectly fine. But its wild doppelgänger’s in trouble. Its precarious status is not for lack of fierceness or cunning—Africa's smallest feline will stand up to jackals eight times its size if cornered, and keeps safe in burrows by day. Rather, the black-footed cat is suffering from both a reduced prey base due to farming and from scavenging poisoned meat from traps intended for caracals and jackals.


When you think of climate change victims, polar bears probably come to mind. However, this tiny relative of rabbits found in western North America could be the first mammalian casualty. Like other furry creatures, the American pika sheds its winter coat as seasons change, but it can still die from overheating in spring and summer. It lives in alpine terrain, so there's no cooler place to migrate as temperatures rise.


The Miami blue butterfly—once common throughout southern Florida—is probably the most endangered insect in America. Coastal development and insecticide use threatened the species in the '80s. Then, Hurricane Andrew nearly wiped them out in 1992; not a single specimen was seen for years, until 35 Miami blues were found in Bahia Honda State Park in the lower Florida Keys in 1999. The butterfly disappeared from the area in 2010 and now only exists at the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. A captive breeding program at the Florida Museum of Natural History hopes to revive the beleaguered butterflies.


Chinchillas originate in the Andes Mountains, where they once lived in adorably plush herds. Nowadays, you're more likely to find them in a pet shop hiding under a plastic igloo. Over the last 15 years, up to 90 percent of wild chinchillas have been killed for their beautiful fur. (Perhaps you've heard it mentioned in a rap song or 50?) Many chinchillas are domesticated and bred specifically for the fur trade—one coat can require up to 150 pelts.


Ferrets aren't as commonly kept as pets as they once were, due to stricter laws. In the wild, they're even more rare. (Also, they’re not the same species: Pet ferrets are originally from Europe and are domesticated polecats; wild ferrets are North American.) Thousands of black-footed ferrets once weaseled their way across the Great Plains. But by 1987, there were probably only 18 left due to habitat loss, disease, and fewer prairie dogs to eat, all of which were captured for breeding programs. Thanks to conservation efforts, there were said to be around 500 black-footed ferrets in the wild and 300 in captivity in 2013.


Over 80 snail species in North America are either endangered or threatened, and their scarcity has nothing to do with French cuisine. Even the tiniest mollusks suffer from climate change, habitat loss, pesticide use, and pollution. The Aldabra banded snail from the Seychelles hadn’t been seen since 1997 and was widely cited as one of the first extinctions caused by climate change. But in late 2014, researchers reported their rediscovery in a remote area of the island. So while the population has plummeted, there’s hope for them yet.


Here’s another potential loss that'll hit close to home and garden. Some 34 species—10 percent of the entire hummingbird population—face extinction due to habitat loss. Climate change will continue to affect them, too, potentially altering their migratory habits and making it harder to find food. Note to self: Buy and fill all the birdfeeders.


When we think of endangered species, elephants, manatees, and pandas come to mind. You might not realize that two of the three zebra species are at risk, too. While conservationists aren’t too worried about the widespread plains zebra, the mountain zebra from Angola, Namibia, and South Africa is considered a vulnerable species due to competition for land and water with livestock. The more primitive-looking and narrowly striped Grévy's zebra found in Kenya and Ethiopia is also in trouble: It is hunted for its skin and also faces habitat destruction and mating disruption due to ecotourism.


Humans are collectively responsible for most animal extinctions, even if we, as individuals, are not the ones poaching them or cutting down forests. Sometimes the food we crave leads to catastrophe. Exhibit A: The Atlantic bluefin tuna. As one of the ocean’s top predators, it’s more tiger than chicken of the sea. But popularity in high-end sushi restaurants has led to overfishing and now illegal fishing, as a single Atlantic bluefin can fetch up to tens of thousands of dollars. The disappearance of this fish severely disrupts the ocean food chain and puts other marine life at risk.


Some 70 percent of North American freshwater mussels are now extinct or endangered due to the usual culprits: pollution and habitat loss. (Those bivalves you’ve been ordering are saltwater species, so you can breathe a sigh of relief.) Mussels are designed to be hardy, and some species can live buried on the bottoms of streams, rivers, and lakes for over a hundred years. This longevity is a good thing when they’re able to function normally, filtering water and excreting nutrients for other marine life. But if the algae and bacteria they feed on are contaminated, the entire ecosystem pays the price. For years, freshwater mussels have been farmed for pearl cultivation. Farming for conservation would be even more valuable. 

To learn more about at-risk species—and the steps being taken to protect them—tune in to Racing Extinction on December 2 at 9PM ET/PT on Discovery. The problems our planet faces are overwhelming, but the solutions can start with you. Inspired by the message in the film, #StartWith1Thing is a call-to-action to each and every one of us across the globe to make small changes in our lives that will have a huge impact on the world. Join the Movement. #StartWith1Thing.