Everyone has heard of the demise of the dodo. The placid giant pigeon simply walked up to the hunters who wiped it out in the space of 100 years. The last dodo died in 1662. Since then we have lost many more species for good. Here is a selection of more recent extinctions – some wonderful beasts that the world is poorer without.
1. Passenger Pigeon
As the West was won, one bird typified the frontier – the passenger pigeon. It existed in unimaginably huge numbers. Once, this one species constituted between 25 and 40 per cent of the bird population of the present U.S. This means that there were up to 5 *billion* passenger pigeons at the time that the Mayflower made landfall. The problem was that the pigeons favored the forests that the increasing settler population cleared for agriculture. The pigeons adapted to farmland, but this brought them into conflict with farmers, who slaughtered huge numbers. The population crash was dramatic, and Martha, the last known passenger pigeon died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 at the age of 29.
The fantastically named Quagga was a species of zebra from South Africa. Its curse was that it had a particularly interesting hide, which was prized. In addition, famers believed that it competed with their cattle for grazing. The result was predictable, and the last known Quagga died in Amsterdam Zoo in 1883.
3. Tasmanian Tiger
Despite its name, this creature was not a tiger. In fact, it was a carnivorous marsupial called a thylacine. Its nickname came from its stripes, and the fact that it was a hunter. It was widespread across Australia but had already been limited to the island of Tasmania by habitat destruction. Once European settlers arrived in the eighteenth century, its days were numbered as they were believed to kill livestock. Despite being declared a protected species in 1936, the last known thylacine died that year. In March 2017, a park ranger in northern Australia claimed that he had seen a Tasmanian tiger. A series of camera traps have been set up to try and confirm the sighting, but the tiger remains listed as extinct.
4. Great Auk
The great auk looked like a giant penguin, standing up to 33 inches tall, but was not in fact related to that species (despite having the Latin name Pinguinus). It was flightless and known on the rocky coastlines and islands of the North Atlantic, especially Canada, Britain, and Scandinavia. They were valued by hunters for their large, tasty eggs, and for their down, which was a popular stuffing for pillows. The last pair, which were sitting on a nest at the time, were killed in Iceland in 1844.
5. Japanese Wolf
The Japanese wolf, also known as the Honshu wolf, lived on the Japanese islands of Shikoku, Hyushu and Honshu. As a wolf it was tiny, more the size of a fox, no more than 3 feet long and a foot high. Given its diminutive size, that it was suspected of hunting horses is somewhat hard to believe, but in 1701, a lord placed a bounty on the wolf for that very reason. If that wasn’t bad enough, after rabies became endemic in the wolf population in 1732, the disease killed off a large proportion of the remaining wolves, and made the survivors more aggressive, bringing them into greater conflict with the humans. Hunting of the wolf increased as a result of the increased conflict, and the last known wolf was killed in 1905.
6. Pinta Island Tortoise
This subspecies of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise from the Ecuadorian island of Pinto is perhaps best known through its last specimen, the tortoise known as Lonesome George. George was lonesome because no one could find a mate for the 102-year-old tortoise, and he died, the last of his kind, in 2012. The species had been hunted for food (Charles Darwin believed giant tortoises were excellent eating), and human habitation further reduced their numbers on the island. The population fell to an unsustainable level, and poor George simply outlived all his fellows.
7. The Heath Hen
While turkeys are the foundation for a good Thanksgiving feast, it is likely that the heath hen – a type of prairie chicken – was the staple of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving. In fact, the bird was very tasty, and that was the problem. We didn’t try and farm them in a modern sustainable way, we simply slaughtered them as we found them and cooked them up with mashed potatoes and corn. They had disappeared from the American mainland by 1870, but, perhaps attracted by all that old money, clung on in a small colony on Martha’s Vineyard until the 1930s by which time rats and cats, as well as the dinner bell, had all taken their toll. The last specimen, known locally as ‘Booming Ben’ after his unrequited mating call, died of unknown causes in March 1932.