The history of life is full of extinctions of living beings, some massive and popularly known, such the one that extinguished dinosaurs. Extinction is a usual process, perhaps necessary, in biological evolution. Even so, the responsibility of the human species for the high rate of extinctions in recent years is alarming. We can even talk of a new geological era, in which the planet globally is changing due to our activity: the Anthropocene. In this post you will meet four mammals that existed only 300 years ago and we will never see alive again. Or maybe will we recover them back from extinction?
THE MOST RECENT EXTINCT MAMMALS BECAUSE OF HUMANS
1. THE THYLACINE
Thylacine, Tasmanian wolf or Tasmanian tiger. Despite its many names, the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) was not related to wolves or tigers (placental mammals), as it was a marsupial animal, like kangaroos and koalas.
The thylacine was a solitary and twilight hunter, who caught his prey by ambush, since it was not very fast. A unique feature was the ability he had to open his mouth: the powerful jaws could open at an angle of 120 degrees. Watch it in the following video:
In the same way as the rest of the marsupials, the offspring were not born directly, but instead developed in the marsupium (popularly known as the mother’s “bag”).
Extinction and protection of the thylacin
The last known wild specimen was hunted in 1930, and in 1933 the last captive specimen in a zoo died, 125 years after its description (1808). There are several hypotheses about its extinction:
- Intensive hunting: As with the wolf in Spain nowadays, the thylacine was accused of killing cattle, so rewards were offered for dejected animals. Subsequent studies have concluded that their jaw was not strong enough to kill an adult sheep.
- Reduction of habitat and prey: with the colonization of Australia, their habitats and habitual preys were reduced.
- Introduction of invasive species and diseases: colonization also led to the introduction of species that competed with the thylacine (dogs, foxes…) and new diseases to which it was not immunized.
The protection of the species was approved 59 days before the death of the last individual. The law was clearly late and insufficient.
If you want to know more about the thylacine, we encourage you to read The thylacine: we extinguished it.
2. THE QUAGGA
The quagga (Equus quagga quagga) it was a subspecies of zebra that inhabited the plains of South Africa. The anterior half of the body had the typical black and white stripes of the zebra. The stripes blurred to give rise to a brownish color on its back, so it was initially believed to be a separate species from the common zebra (Equus quagga). The legs were white.
Its strange name belongs to the onomatopoeia, in the language of the Khoi, of the noise that quaggas made.
Extinction and recovery of the quagga
The last wild specimen died in 1870, and the last one in captivity died in 1883 at the Amsterdam zoo, only 98 years after its description (1785). Although the quagga began to be hunted by Dutch settlers to use their flesh and skin, the decline in population was accelerated until extinction because of the intensive hunting to exterminate wild animals in the area, and thus use the pastures for domestic cattle.
At the time no conservation effort was made. Moreover, it was not known that the quagga of the Amsterdam zoo was the last one. However, quagga has the dubious honor of being the only extinct species that has “come back to life” thanks to a project called The Quagga Project, which began in 1987.
When it was discovered that the quagga was not a separate species from the zebra, but a subspecies, its DNA was sequenced and compared with zebra’s DNA. After all, if they were subspecies, zebras had to have quaggas’ DNA in their genes. By selective breeding of zebras with a tendency to disappearing stripes, some quaggas are currently grazing in fields of northern South Africa.
Although the first technique that is intended for the recovery of extinct species is cloning, in the case of quaggas it has been possible through the reproduction of selected zebras, thanks to the quagga DNA preserved in its genome, even if they are not 100% quaggas identical to their extinct ancestors.
In this video you can see current quaggas and the investigation process followed to “resuscitate them” (english subtitles):
3. STELLER’S SEA COW
Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) was a sirenium, that is, a marine mammal of the same order as manatees and dugong. It was distributed by the Bering Sea, near Kamchatka (Eastern Russia). It was up to 8 meters long and weighed 5 tons.
Unlike the rest of the sirenians, who live in the Indian Ocean and part of the Pacific, Steller’s sea cow lived in cold waters, had fewer teeth and was the best sirenium adapted to marine life. It was totally herbivorous (algae and plants).
Extinction and conservation of Steller’s sea cow
Steller’s sea cow has the sad record of being the fastest animal to become extinct since its discovery in 1741: only 27 years. The cause is, again, indiscriminate hunting by seal hunters and whalers, to take profit from the skin, meat, and fat. With hardly any predators, sea cows were easy prey. No effort was made to conserve the species.
Currently, there are only about 20 skeletons and few skin samples.
4. WESTERN BLACK RHINOCEROS
We finish the list of recently extinct mammals with the western black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes), a subspecies of the black rhinoceros. It was almost 4 meters long and could weigh up to 1.3 tons. Like all rhinos, they were herbivores.
Extinction and conservation of the western black rhinoceros
He lived in the savanna of central-western Africa only 8 years ago (IUCN declared it extinct in 2011). The causes of its extinction were:
- Habitat loss.
- Slaughtering by farmers to protect their crops.
- And especially poaching, mainly to market with their horns and as hunting trophies. Rhinoceros horns are used in traditional Chinese medicine without any scientific evidence. If you want to know more animals threatened due to this activity, you can read The five most threatened species by traditional Chinese medicine.
There were 850,000 individuals registered at the beginning of the 20th century. Between 1960 and 1995, poachers reduced its population by 98%. In 2001, there were only 5 live rhinos left. In spite of the conservation measures taken at the beginning of the 20th century, the fight against hunting and enforcement of judgments against the poachers were declining over time, which led to the disappearance of the subspecies.
Another subspecies of rhinoceros has become extinct in recent years: the southern black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis bicornis) disappeared in 1850 due to excessive hunting and habitat destruction. The rest of the subspecies are critically endangered.
TO THINK ABOUT
The list of extinct animals in historical times and because of human action does not stop growing. Some species such as the Chinese river dolphin or Baiji (Lipotes vexillifer), have been declared extinct on more than one occasion. IUCN currently has it categorized as critically endangered-possibly extinct, although there is no solid evidence of its existence since 2007. The vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus) can be the next, with only 12 specimens detected in 2018.
Although animals, and especially mammals, include the most iconic species that the popular opinion wants to conserve, we must not forget the biological value of other species of animals, plants, fungi, algae and even bacteria, from which we should avoid their extinction. In a future post, we will write about some of these species.