Vintage botanical illustrations

With all the modern imaging technologies today it’s easy to forget that even just 150 years ago the only way to illustrate any kind of book was by hand-made drawings and paintings. In the case of scientific works – be it a herbal for physicians and pharmacists, a gardeners handbook, or an account about the flora and fauna of some newly discovered territory – the perfect depiction of the subject with utmost attention to fine details was crucial and required not only scientific accuracy and the understanding of morphology but also great artistic skill.

From around the 1700’s, with the spreading of a more affordable book printing process these books became available for wider audiences; and the works of great illustrators like Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Anne Pratt, Georg Ehret, Maria Sibylla Merian, John James Audubon or Ernst Haeckel ( the latter two naturalists themselves) became fairly well known and popular.

One of my personal favorites among the lesser known illustrators of this era is Madame Berthe Hoola van Nooten, a Dutch artist who spent several years on the Dutch East Indies and made a beautiful botanical plate series illustrating 40 exotic plant species of the island of Java. The fineness, the delicate coloration, the accuracy and artistic details of her works are incredible – Fleurs, Fruits et Feuillages Choisis de l’Ile de Java (Flowers, fruits and plants from the island of Java) was published in 1863-64 in Brussels with descriptions of the 40 selected plants and excellently executed chromolithographs of the original drawings.

My family has been running an antique book shop for decades – through our connections I had the opportunity to access high resolution scans of these illustrations and digitally restore and clean them. You can check out all 40 illustrations in this gallery, art prints of the restored images are available in different sizes in my store.


Madagascar wildlife poster series

My new wildlife conservation awareness poster series is out featuring the amazing wildlife of Madagascar, a unique biodiversity hotspot with a range of endemic species severely endangered by the deforestation of the island.



This series was created in collaboration with Chances for Nature, a Göttingen (Germany) based non-profit organization working for the conservation of natural habitats and biodiversity. They have several ongoing projects around the world (you can read about them in detail on the CFN webpage); one of the locations is Madagascar. Among other things, they established an environmental education camp in the Kirindy Reserve in the western part of the island where they bring local children to the forest to observe the animals as closely as researchers do – many of the species featured on the posters occur in this relatively small area.

For now, the new series is available in my RedBubble store on posters, art prints, spiral notebooks and stickers. Similarly to the two original series I plan to create design versions more suitable for apparel and to write a blogpost about each of the species later.

The addax – a desert specialist



Addax – the screw-horned antelope

One of the defining movies of my childhood was Jamie Uys’ 1974 nature documentary Animals Are Beautiful People. I remember the opening shots showing the sand dunes and flats of the Namib desert and the narrator’s voice: ‘The oldest and driest desert of the world…. You’d think nobody could make a living here.’ And then the movie shows the incredible animals and plants inhabiting that hostile and seemingly empty environment; and shows the other, ephemeral face of the desert by filming how the Kalahari turns into a meadow for a few weeks after a rain.

The Sahara – largest of all (non-polar) deserts – doesn’t appear in this movie; but the wildlife of the over 10 million km2 area (together with its southern Sahelian fringes) is just as uniquely adapted to the complex mosaic of arid and semi-arid lands of rocky plateaus, sandy dunes, basins, depressions, wadi systems, gravelly plans, arid grasslands and mountain ranges. Thanks to the extreme conditions these habitats have remained largely undisturbed by humans, and the main threat to the survival of most of the wildlife is the recent severe drought. For the last few hundred thousand years, the climate and the vegetation of the Sahara has alternated between hot desert and savanna grassland – this phenomenon is attributed to a 41 000 year cycle caused by the 2.5° precession of the Earth’s axis. Although currently we are in the dry period – with the next wet period expected in 15 000 years – the long droughts of the 1960-80s are considered rather extreme and induced a catastrophic expansion of desertification over the entire region with direct and collateral consequences affecting both the flora and the fauna of the desert.



Desert dunes of the Erg Chebbi in Northern Sahara
©Copyright  Ali Eminov / CC BY-NC 2.0 

Unfortunately there is one group of Saharan animals threatened not only by the extreme drought: large mammal species of the desert have been heavily overhunted in the last century with modern arms. The populations of these species are rapidly declining; many of them are facing the imminent threat of extinction. One of the critically endangered species is the Addax – or white antelope – with fewer than 100 individuals living in the wild.

Range: The addax was historically widespread throughout large areas of the Sahara and its bordering Sahelian grasslands, but over the past century and particularly over the last few decades the range of the species has been drastically decreasing. Once found in all countries sharing the Sahara Desert, today there’s only one remaining addax population in the wild in the Termit/Tin Toumma region – a narrow band of desert between eastern Niger and the Djourab sand sea in western Chad -; with some occasional vagrants in southern Algeria and a possible small group in central Mauritania, based on unconfirmed reports.
A few hundred addaxes have been reintroduced into fenced enclosures in their former range and habitat in Tunisia and Morocco, with slowly increasing numbers. The captive population is estimated to be around 6000 individuals globally (in Europe, North-America, Japan, Australia and the Middle East); partly in managed breeding programs of zoos, partly in private collections and on ranches in the USA where they are kept and bred for hunting.

The addax used to inhabit all major habitat types of the Sahara
©Copyright Coke Smith

Habitat: Addaxes are desert-dwellers, the species has been recorded in all major habitat types of the Sahara except the mountainous areas; they inhabit even the most arid territories with extreme temperatures and less than 100 mm annual rainfall. They have a preference for firmer sand sheets and flatter areas between sandy dune fields where they can graze on ephemeral annual pastures and more permanent perennial vegetation.
The addax is a nomadic species with movements following the food source available at the moment – they penetrate deep into the central arid Sahara after rainfall makes the desert bloom and move out of the desert to the bordering Sahel regions during the drought to find shade and grazing.

Critically endangered addax antelope
©Copyright Coke Smith

Description: The addax (Addax nasomaculatus) – besides the rhim gazelle, also endangered – is the most desert-adapted African antelope: it has anatomical, physiological and behavioral characteristics allowing the utilization of extremely desolate, inhospitable and arid habitats. The species is also known as screw-horned antelope: its most recognizable feature is the beautiful, long spiral double horn that can reach over one meter in length with one to three twists.
Male addaxes have a shoulder height of about 95-115 cm and a body weight of around 100-125 kg – females are a bit smaller and lighter. They have a stocky build, relatively short and sturdy legs for an antelope, and broad hooves with flat soles and strong dewclaws suitable for traveling efficiently on sandy terrain – they have adapted to endurance of extreme conditions of the desert rather than to speed. The coat of the addax changes seasonally: in the hot summer it is almost white to reflect radiant heat; in winter it turns into smoky grey while the belly, the legs and the hindquarters remain white. They have dark brown hairs between the horns and a conspicuous X shaped white mask over their greyish nose. They have a short, slender tail ending in a tuft of black hair.



Portrait of an addax
©Copyright Josh More  / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0  

Addaxes are primarily grazers, eating mainly grasses; but they also consume leaves of shrubs, leguminous herbs and bushes, water-storing plants such as melons and tubers, perennials turning green after the rain, and – if there are no grasses available – they browse leaves of small trees like Acacia too. The addax has physiological functions highly adapted to desert life; these antelopes are able to survive without water utilizing only the moisture from their food and the dew that condenses on plants. They conserve the moisture by excreting dry feces and concentrated urine and they are able to tolerate a daily rise of 6 °C in their body temperature before they need to resort to nasal panting to cool down. They feed at night and early morning and spend the day resting in shaded areas and depressions that provide them protection from direct heat of the sun and sandstorms.

The addax is the most desert adapted African antelope
©Copyright Coke Smith

Addaxes are social animals, herds usually contain up to 20 members – both male and female -, with a strong social structure based on age and led by the oldest female. Breeding peaks during winter and early spring, females deliver one calf after a 9 month gestation period.



Female addax and calf in winter colors
©Copyright Greg Goebel / CC BY-SA 2.0

Threats: The addax has been hunted historically with traditional methods for its meet, skin and horns by nomad peoples of the desert and by European trophy hunters; but the rapid decline of the population started at the end of the 1940s with the advent of the lethal combination of modern firearms and off-road vehicles. The extreme drought periods of the second half of the 1900s resulted in general reduction of pasture lands, forcing the addax from the more secure arid area to the Sahelian steppes where it was more exposed to exploitation.

By the beginning of the 21th century the number of addaxes plummeted to near extinction – the wild population was estimated to be around a few hundred individuals. During the last two decades growing regional insecurity, migrants, and the illicit trade of arms and drugs has significantly increased the traffic and illegal hunting in the remote, formerly undisturbed habitats of the addax. Poaching has also increased because of hunting by mining, military and administrative personnel of the Chinese oil industry’s installations in Niger, the last remaining reserve of the addax.

The Termit/Tin Toumma region in Niger is the last reserve of the wild addaxes
©Copyright Coke Smith

In spring 2016, an extensive aerial and ground survey of the experts of the IUCN and the Sahara Conservation Found had found only three individuals in the Termit/Tin Toumma Reserve of Niger – an area considered as the key habitat of the addax. Fortunately later that year and during 2017 new surveys in Chad and Niger revealed a few small groups – still less than hundred individuals – of addaxes, giving hope that with joint efforts and engagement of the governments and wildlife services of both countries and with the expert help of several conservationist groups an effective action plan can be implemented to save this remaining population.


The addax poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife. 


The Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo – back to the canopy



Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo

Tree kangaroo might sound like an oxymoron to someone not familiar with the wildlife of New Guinea, but these arboreal macropods really do exist and inhabit the tropical rainforests of the island and the far northeastern territory of Queensland, Australia. In fact, the evolutionary history of tree kangaroos is a beautiful example of how life will always adapt to a new habitat to fully exploit its environmental carrying capacity.

Looking at the map one would naturally assume that the wildlife of New Guinea is similar or closely related to the fauna and flora of the other islands of the Indonesian archipelago. This supposition proves to be rather untrue: though New Guinea’s flora is a mixture of tropical rainforest species with Asian origin and typically Australasian plants, the second largest island of the Earth is inhabited overwhelmingly – and surprisingly – by animals of Australian origin.



New Guinea’s endangered Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo
©Copyright Zweer de Bruin / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

The explanation lies in the geological history of the region: unlike the rest of the archipelago, New Guinea with the surrounding smaller islands is part of the Australian continental plate called Sahul and not the Sunda Shelf (extension of the Southeast Asian continental shelf). Sahul had separated from Antarctica and South America by the beginning of the Miocene; and kept slowly drifting northwards, colliding with the Sunda Shelf about 15 million years ago.
For long periods from the Miocene until the Holocene, today’s Australian mainland and New Guinea were linked by a land bridge during the repeated episodes of glacial advance when sea levels fell more than 100 meters and Sahul was exposed as dry land. Similarly, from time to time the Sunda Shelf used to be a continuous land mass connecting southeastern Asia and the Indonesian islands – Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Bali. In these periods the migration and distribution of species on the mainland and the respective future islands was unrestricted, but a barrier of a wide deep-water sea-channel along/above the colliding edges of the two continental shelves kept most species from crossing, and thus Asian and Australian wildlife – especially fauna – mostly separated.
However, many plant species have managed to spread through the channel; and as Sahul kept slowly drifting north to the tropical zone and the climate has gradually changed, the lush vegetation of the Asian tropical forests started to invade and replace the original flora on the northern territories of the shelf, developing into an entirely new habitat. This vegetation was quite different from the native flora, providing superior quality food in comparison with the plants of that age that were adapted to the more arid climate of the Australian landmass.
Only few animals – mainly bats and birds – have been able to cross the stretches of open water between the shelves; and the absence of leaf monkeys or any leaf-eating mammals occupying the canopy of the average Asian tropical forest left this niche of the new forests empty, presenting an evolutionary opportunity.



Tree kangaroos inhabit montane and lowland tropical forests of New Guinea and northeastern Australia
©Copyright Stu Rapley / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Around that time, rock-wallabies were abundant in northern Australia. Rock-wallabies are terrestrial kangaroos, but some of their species have a propensity to climb trees to feed on the flowers, fruits and leaves. Molecular evidence – genetic studies show that the Proserpine rock-wallaby is the closest living relative of tree kangaroos – strongly suggests a rock-wallaby ancestor around 5-7 million years ago that moved in into the new habitat and has slowly adapted to the arboreal lifestyle, evolving over time into a dozen of new species today known as tree kangaroos.
At the end of the last glacial period about 12 000 years ago the rising sea level separated New Guinea from the Australian mainland: most species of tree-kangaroos live now in the tropical forests of the islands, only two species are native in Queensland. Most tree-kangaroos are endangered, with decreasing populations threatened by hunting for food and by habitat loss: one of the endangered species is the Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo, also known as ornate tree kangaroo.

Range: The Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo is endemic to the island of New Guinea; the current range of the species covers the mid-montane regions of the Central Cordillera from the Indonesian border to Milne Bay province. Historically it used to occur in lowland areas too but now it’s locally extinct: rapid deforestation of these regions has destroyed most of its habitat.

Habitat: Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos inhabit montane and lowland tropical forests, they adapted to a canopy-dwelling lifestyle.



Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos have two golden stripes on their back and every individual has a unique pattern of rings and blotches on their tail
©Copyright  C Steele / CC BY-NC 2.0 

Description: The anatomy of the Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus goodfellowi) is a great example of a living transitional form of evolution. Tree kangaroos have several features clearly showing the adaptation to arboreal lifestyle; but their general anatomy is still close to the ground-dwelling ancestor and is rather unsuited to a life in the canopy of trees. They have shorter and broader hind limbs with ankle joints that are modified from the highly specialized ankles of terrestrial hopping kangaroos to allow the foot to be rotated to grip branches; their arms are proportionally larger and stronger; they have rubbery pads on the soles of their feet and their paws and large, curved claws; their tail is lighter built and they use it well to balance while moving; and – unlike hopping kangaroos – they can move their hind limbs independently. But compared with perfectly adapted tree-dwelling animals like monkeys, possums or squirrels they are still clumsy climbers.

Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos have a body length of around 55-80 cm with a tail length of 70-85 cm. They have maybe the nicest coloration among tree kangaroos: their short, wholly fur has a soft reddish-brown shade; they have a greyish-brown face and light golden underbelly, throat and limbs. Two longitudinal golden stripes run on their back where they have a characteristic vortex of hair. Every individual has a unique pattern of brown and golden rings and blotches on their tail.



Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos eat large quantities of leaves
©Copyright Nathan Rupert / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos feed mainly on leaves of the forest trees; but occasionally they consume flowers, fruits, cereals and even insects. They have a sacculated stomach with fermenting bacteria to digest the large quantities of fibrous foliage. They are active in the morning and afternoon, except near human settlements where they are mostly nocturnal.

Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos are solitary and territorial animals. Being marsupials, females have a well-developed pouch opening forward. They have one young per birth after a 21-38 days gestation period, and the joey grows for almost a year in the pouch before first leaving.



Endangered Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos in the Melbourne Zoo
©Copyright Tim Williams / CC BY 2.0 

Threats: Except humans there are virtually no predators or competitors for Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos in their habitat; the species – as all tree kangaroo species – is primarily threatened by uncontrolled hunting for meat and extensive habitat destruction. The lowland tropical forests of the island had been almost completely eliminated and replaced by plantations – coffee, rice, palm oil and wheat – and farm gardens of locals; and logging continues in the montane areas for timber, mining and more agricultural land.


The Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife. 

The globe-horned chameleon – individualist of the rain forest



The globe-horned chameleon is one of the chameleon species endemic to Madagascar

Chameleons are fascinating creatures for many reasons. They have a couple of morphological features and unusual abilities that make their appearance truly unique and somewhat bizarre: their hands and feet are fixed in a grasping position to help them cling to branches – arboreal species also have a prehensile tale for that, accurately curled up like a spiral when resting; they have extra-long, extensile tongues for catching insects at a distance sometimes bigger than their own length; they have unique, bulging eyes that can turn and focus independently giving them a full 360 degree view –  they can see in both visible and ultraviolet light; and they are most recognized for their ability to change their skin coloration and pattern – contrary to popular belief, the main reason for that is not camouflage but to convey their emotions and to communicate with mates.

Chameleons come in many sizes from 15 mm up to 75 cm; many of them have variously sized and shaped casques, horns, crests or other protrusions or appendages on their heads, and spikes along their spine from neck to tail.  They have a characteristic swaying gait rocking slowly back and forth between each step taken. Unlike other animals, they continue to grow throughout their lives, shedding their old skin in pieces.



Endangered globe-horned chameleon
©Copyright Linda de Volder

These extraordinary, colorful lizards live in warm habitats – ranging from humid forests to deserts – of mainland Africa, Madagascar, southern Europe, some regions of the Arabic and Indian peninsulas and the island of Sri Lanka. From the more than 200 known chameleon species (according to the IUCN listing) 85 can be found on Madagascar. Many of them are endemic to the island – Madagascar has an 88 million years long history of relative isolation, 90 percent of its wildlife can be found nowhere else on the planet. This unique wildlife and ecosystem is severely threatened by different activities of the island’s growing human population – the globe-horned chameleon is one of Madagascar’s 28 chameleon species assessed as endangered or critically endangered.

Range: The globe-horned chameleon is endemic to Madagascar, with a current distribution range restricted to a relatively small area of around 675 km² (based on the size of the residual forest patches around the locations of confirmed sightings) in the central highlands between elevations of 1200-1500 meters.

Habitat: The residual humid montane rainforest of the central highlands. Globe-horned chameleons live in the mid-upper stories of the forest; they prefer areas with old, big trees, mossy branches and twined lianas, often alongside streams.

Calumma globifer, female

Female globe-horned chameleon
©Copyright Matthias Markolf All rights reserved

Description: The species was first described by German zoologist Albert Günther in 1879. The globe-horned chameleon belongs to the larger chameleon species: females are a bit smaller than males, with a body length of around 15/17 cm and a tail of 30/39 cm, respectively.

Globe-horned chameleons have a backwards directed flat casque on their head – the species is also known as flat-casqued chameleon -, and males have two small globular nose appendages. They don’t have spikes on their back and the scalation of their skin is heterogeneous. Their color range – as by many chameleon species – covers different shades of brown, yellow, green and gray; on their side from head to tail they have a wider horizontal stripe with variable colors and usually three or more diagonal stripes. Males have a whitish-yellowish pattern on their throats.

Calumma globifer

Close-up of a male globe-horned chameleon – also known as flat casqued chameleon – showing both eponymous features
©Copyright Matthias Markolf All rights reserved

Globe-horned chameleons – as all chameleon species – are insectivores, hunting by projecting their tongue to capture the prey. They are diurnal, live solitarily and are often aggressive towards other members of their own species, showing their emotions by rapid color change. There’s no information about the breeding and mating habits of the species, it’s only known that females lay around two dozen eggs in a clutch.

Threats:  As most chameleon species of Madagascar the globe-horned chameleon is mainly threatened by the rapid loss and degradation of the island’s original forests. The continuous deforestation of Madagascar started with the arrival of humans around 2350 years ago and accelerated rapidly in the second half of the 20th century – around 40 percent of the forest areas were lost in that period, making altogether 90 percent of the original forests gone. Forest loss is largely attributed to the traditional slash-and-burn agricultural method imported to the island by the earliest settlers, (partly illegal) logging for charcoal and construction materials, and recently the increasing demand in land suitable for cattle grazing and coffee plantations. The increased exploitation of natural resources as a repercussion of the political events of the last decade had dire consequences for the island’s wildlife and forest conservation: several species are threatened with extinction.



The Ambohitantely Forest Reserve located 140 km northwest of Antananarivo

Chameleons are popular pets all around the world and the globe-horned chameleon is also threatened by illegal trade – the legal export of all Calumma species is currently suspended on Madagascar.


The globe-horned chameleon poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife. 

The mottled eagle ray – little known species of the oceans



The mottled eagle ray

If you spend some time browsing in the IUCN database of species you get to realize two scary and disturbing things – I mean statistically, because the database for the most part is a disturbing and infuriating read on its own… There are over 15 000 species categorized as DD (data deficient), meaning we don’t have enough information about those plants and animals to be able to assess how threatened they are; and more than 50 percent of the critically endangered and endangered species also need research on basic knowledge like life history, ecology, population size or distribution. Among them the whole diversity of wildlife is represented; they live in various habitats from forests to deserts, in land and marine regions of all biogeographical areas. These species might be easily extirpated by humankind from the planet forever without even really knowing them before – not that I would think it makes a real difference for the victims, but anyway.

One of the marine species with very deficient information is the mottled eagle ray (Aetomylaeus maculatus), assessed as endangered.



Mottled eagle rays are endangered by demersal fishing methods
©Copyright  Keith DP Wilson / CC BY-NC 2.0 

Range: Mottled eagle rays have sporadic distribution in the Indo-West Pacific along the coastal waters of the South China Sea and Indonesia, the Bay of Bengal, Sri Lanka and the Gulf of Oman. They no longer occur in the Gulf of Thailand.

Habitat: The species appears to be naturally uncommon, occurs on the inner continental shelf to depths of about 60 m over soft sandy substrate, also inhabits mangrove creeks and protected sandy channels to a depth of at least 18 m.

Description: The mottled eagle ray can grow up to78 cm disc width, has an exceptionally long – over six times the length of the body – spineless tail and a distinctive color pattern of stripes and patches. It is an active swimmer, travelling long distances; feeds on crustaceans and mollusks. Mottled eagle rays are ovoviviparous (the embryos feed initially on yolk then receive additional nourishment from the mother by indirect absorption of uterine fluid enriched with mucus, fat or protein). The species is suspected to have a low fecundity, up to 4 offspring per litter.

Threats: The mottled eagle ray – as all marine animals in its habitat – is severely threatened by a variety of inshore demersal fishing methods (bottom trawls, gillnets, trammel nets) frequently used in its entire range. Fisheries tend to retain eagle rays as a ‘collateral catch’ and sell them to local fish markets. The high level of exploitation of these habitats combined with the low fecundity and natural rarity of the mottled eagle ray can lead to the extinction of the species very quickly.

And that’s it, we know nothing else about mottled eagle rays…



Mottled eagle rays have a distinctive color pattern of stripes and patches
©Copyright  Keith DP Wilson / CC BY-NC 2.0 


The mottled eagle ray poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife. 

The Western black rhino – doomed to extinction



Western black rhino – extinct subspecies of the black rhinoceros

The modern age history of rhinoceroses has been like a rollercoaster, and odds are that’s not going to change in the near future. During the 19-20th centuries all five extant rhino species were hunted to the brink of extinction: the black rhino population reached a record low of 2400 in 1995, the four other species all had at some point of their story only a few dozen living specimens. Two of them – the Javan and the Sumatran rhino – have each only one population today with estimated 50-80 individuals; both species are critically endangered. Thanks to conservation efforts, by the end of the 20th century the white rhino and the greater one-horned rhino were able to recover to populations of a few thousand – only to face the danger of extirpation again because of the current surge in poaching to satisfy the increasing demand for rhino horns.



All five rhino species have been hunted historically for their horns – Indian greater one-horned rhino hunting

Rhino horn has been highly prized and sought after by several cultures for many reasons for over a thousand years, and Asia has been considered the leading consumer for decades, but this recent surge of demand is clearly connected to one country: Vietnam. In the first decade of the 21th century wealthy classes of Vietnam started to regard buying, consuming and gifting rhino horn as a status symbol. This is supported by an underlying belief in health benefits: rhino horn has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years – even nowadays, neglecting all scientific evidence of their complete ineffectiveness – but the notion that it is the cure for everything from hangover to cancer is recent, and the latter one is spread by some well-respected Vietnamese doctors.

And as if the dire situation in Vietnam wasn’t enough, in November last year (2018) China announced that they will allow the regulated trade of rhino horn, tiger bones and animal parts of other endangered species used in traditional Chinese medicine again. Currently the implementation of lifting the ban that has been standing since 1993 is postponed because of the international outcry aroused by the announcement – maybe the time should be spent on convincing people willing to give thousands of dollars for a few ounces of rhino horn to choose the much more economical equivalent and chew on their fingernails instead…

Sadly, it is quite certain that four subspecies will not have a future at all: the Indian Javan rhino is thought to be gone extinct before 1925, and after decades of being hunted by poachers three more subspecies eventually went extinct in the first years of the 21th century. Sudan, the last male Northern white rhino, had to be euthanized in March 2018 leaving only 2 females of his subspecies alive in the world; the last known individual of another Javan rhinoceros subspecies (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus) was shot and killed in April 2010 in Vietnam – this subspecies was already thought to be extinct for a while when a tiny population was rediscovered in 1988; and the first victim of the century was the Western black rhino, wiped out completely sometimes in the first decade.



The last Western black rhinos resided in Cameroon
©Copyright Save The Rhino

Date of extinction: The date and the circumstances of the death of the last Western black rhino are unknown – even the time of the last legit sighting is hard to tell –, but there’s no doubt it was killed by poachers for its horn. A WWF survey in 2001 found five live specimens in Cameroon and reported the possibility of three more unconfirmed individuals. In 2004, a nongovernmental organization (Symbiose) reported that they found evidence of over 30 western black rhinos still living in Cameroon – that quickly turned out to be a lie: the trackers faked rhino footprints to keep their jobs. In 2006, parallel surveys of the WWF, the Cameroon Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, and a renewed 6 month long field survey of Symbiose conducted on the species’ common roaming ground in Cameroon’s Northern Province failed to find any traces of living specimens. After the usual 5 years waiting period the IUCN eventually changed the status of the Western black rhino from critically endangered to extinct in 2011.

Range: The Western black rhino once used to roam large areas of central and western Africa from south-eastern Niger to South Sudan. The last population lived in Cameroon.

Habitat: Western black rhinos used to inhabit the savanna areas of sub-Saharan Africa; they preferred areas with thick scrub and bushland, gallery woodlands and marshes over the vast grassland.



Black rhinos roam the vast savannas of sub-Saharan Africa
©Copyright Gerry Zambonini / CC BY-SA 2.0

Description: The Western black rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes) was one of the four subspecies – according to the taxonomical scheme adopted by the IUCN – of the black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis). With an average of 140-180 cm height at the shoulder, 3-3.75 m body length and 800-1.400 kg weight it was considerably smaller than the other African rhino, the white rhinoceros. The names of both species are misleading as the white rhino is actually grey and the black rhino’s skin varies from brown to grey – they are not truly distinguishable by color.
African rhinos share a common ancestor and are generally quite similar in their appearances – thick skin, massive body with a broad chest, short neck, large head with two horns on the snout, and ears with a relatively wide rotation angle – but besides their size there are minor but very important differences, developed as adaptations to their differing diet and feeding habits. White rhinos are grazers: they eat grass, preferring the shortest grains of the open savanna grasslands; they have a distinctive flat broad mouth, a ‘square’ lip. Black rhinos adapted to browsing: they eat foliage and all leafy parts, branches, shoots and fruits of bushes and smaller trees; they’ve developed a strong, prehensile ‘hooked’ upper lip to grasp the leaves and twigs. The black rhino’s head is also smaller and held higher while white rhinos have a prominent muscular hump to support their larger head.





The clippers and the lawn-mower: black rhinos have prehensile lips adapted to browsing on leafy plants, white rhinos have square lips adapted to grazing on grass
©Copyright Bernard Dupont / CC BY-SA 2.0  and Martha de Jong-Lantink / CC BY 2.0

Besides their range, Western black rhinos had some less conspicuous features to distinguish them from the other three black rhino subspecies: they had a square based horn, some distinctive chewing apparatus characteristics, and their scientific name – longipes – refers to their longer distal limb segment.

All black rhinos usually spend their time browsing for food in the morning and evening hours and rest during the hot midday period, preferably wallowing in a mud pool to cool down and as a protection against parasites. They regularly visit water holes using the same trails that elephants use – they can live up to 5 days without drinking in drought periods.

Adult black rhinos generally live in solitary, except the mother-calf relation and while mating; young adults frequently form loose associations. Thanks to their deadly horn, thick skin and imposing size rhinos don’t really have any natural predators, except some rare cases of lion or crocodile attack. Black rhinos also have a reputation of being very aggressive, attacking at everything perceived as a threat – even at each other, often causing serious injuries resulting in death. Recent research shows that – in contrary to widespread belief – rhino’s eyesight isn’t particularly poor; although they rely more on their keen ears and excellent sense of smell.

Black rhinos have no mating season. Females have a single calf after a 15 month gestation period; the youngsters stay with their mother for about 2-3 years. Life expectancy in natural conditions is 35-50 years.



Eastern black rhino baby, a critically endangered black rhino subspecies
©Copyright Tambako the Jaguar / CC BY-ND 2.0 

Cause of extinction: At the beginning of the 20th century around one million black rhinoceroses roamed the savannas of Africa; for most of the century, the population of the Western black rhino was the largest among the subspecies. All black rhino subspecies were heavily hunted in the first decades of the 1900s by ‘sportsmen’ and trophy collectors; with the increasing industrial agriculture farmers and ranchers regarded them as crop pests and decimated their numbers.

Rhino horn has been sought after as a valuable material for special, traditional carved items in the Middle East and Asia; it is still frequently used to prepare the handle of a ceremonial knife called janbiya in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In the early 1950s, Mao Zedong started to promote so called ‘traditional Chinese medicine’ to counter Western influences: as rhino horn was – absolutely falsely – believed to be able to ‘cure’ several ailments, poaching rapidly increased, and with the dwindling population of rhinos all over Africa and Asia the market value of 1 kg horn reached 50 000 USD.  Between 1960 and 1995 98 percent of all black rhino populations were wiped out.

By the 1980s there were only two countries left in Africa with Western black rhinos: Cameroon had around 110 and Chad around 25 individuals living in their territory, with no known specimens in any zoos. The Chad population was eliminated within the next decade; and by the end of the century Cameroon had only 10 Western black rhinos, partly living in isolation without any hope to find each other and start breeding.

The WWF was the only organization coming up with a preservation plan to save the Western black rhino (1999), but unfortunately in lack of local conservation capacity and government commitment the program has never had a chance to be carried out, and the Western black rhinoceros was wiped out from the planet.



With the recent surge in poaching all rhino species are in danger
©Copyright Dolf Botha / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 


The Western black rhino poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife. 

The Pinta Island tortoise – architect of Galápagos



The Pinta Island tortoise is one of the giant Galápagos tortoise species

The Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdonii) belongs to the Galápagos tortoises: the species complex of Chelonoidis nigra comprises one of the two still extant giant tortoise populations on the planet – the other one being the Aldabra giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea), native to a remote atoll of the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.

The common ancestors of the Galápagos tortoises arrived to the volcanic archipelago from mainland South America 2-3 million years ago, drifting 600 miles to the west with the Humboldt Currents. They colonized the oldest, easternmost islands of San Cristóbal and Espanola; then later they dispersed throughout the younger, westerly located islands of the archipelago – the process was probably parallel with and highly influenced by the continuing volcanic events and formation of the islands. They eventually inhabited 9 islands and developed into 14 variations – 11 islands and 16 variations, if we count the 2 disputed species of Rábida and Santa Fe Islands – that differ not only genetically but also in appearance and behavior.



Most of the extant Galápagos tortoise populations are endangered

Due to massive exploitation mainly for their meat and oil by whalers and buccaneers in several waves from the 16th century, the numbers of tortoises declined from over 250 000 to around 3000 in the mid 1900s, when conservation programs were started to preserve and restore the rapidly demising unique ecosystem and wildlife of the archipelago.

The taxonomic status of the different Galápagos tortoise races hasn’t been fully resolved yet and the conservation status of the populations keeps also changing as continued research of the remaining wild and captive populations, DNA analysis and other modern scientific methods have revealed new information and surprising events in the last decades. Just in February this year (2019), a lonely female tortoise was discovered on Fernandina Island – a population (Chelonoidis phantasticus) that was originally known from a single specimen and thought to have gone extinct a century ago.
As of today, most of the 12 extant species (with at least one live purebred specimen) are assessed critically endangered or endangered, the 2 disputed species are surely extinct, and there are chances that two species – the Pinta and the Floreana (Chelonoidis nigra) populations – considered currently extinct may have unlocated live specimens or could be revived by interbreeding programs of hybrid specimens aimed to restore the approximate genetic constitution of these species.

Date of extinction: The Pinta Island tortoise was assumed to be extinct in the mid 20th century until 1 December 1971, when a lone male was found on the island. He was named Lonesome George and became a symbol for conservation efforts not only for the Galápagos tortoises but for all endangered species around the world. As despite all efforts no other individuals of his species were discovered either in the wild or in captive populations of the world’s zoos, with Lonesome George’s death on 24 June 2012 the species was thought to be extinct forever.



Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island tortoise
©Copyright 3rdfloorCC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

However, there’s still some hope for bringing back the Pinta Island tortoise from extinction once again. In 2008, an expedition of researchers reported that they found 17 young first-generation Pinta hybrids in the Volcano Wolf (Chelonoidis becki) tortoise population on Isabela Island. As Galápagos tortoises can have a lifespan of 100 years in the wild, the pure Pinta parent of these hybrid specimens could still be alive somewhere on Isabela Island.

Range: As its name suggests, the Pinta Island tortoise originally used to be endemic exclusively to Pinta Island (also known as Abingdoni Island), the northernmost major island of the Galápagos archipelago.
The most probable explanation for the presence of the Pinta hybrids on Isabela is that whalers and pirates regularly used to drop large numbers of tortoises – collected from other islands of the archipelago – in Banks Bay, near Isabela Island to lighten the burden of their ship. Apparently, many of these tortoises managed to get to the shore and survived; producing purebred specimens, and also hybrids by mating with the local Volcano Wolf population. This theory is supported by the fact that researchers have also found Floreana Island hybrids – the species was declared extinct in 1846 – in the same population.

Habitat: Pinta Island tortoises migrated seasonally up and down the volcano between two characteristic habitat zones of the island in response to changes in the availability and quality of the vegetation. In the dry season, they inhabited the meadows of the native Scalesia tree forest of the humid zone of higher elevations limited only to a small area of the island. In the wet season, they migrated to the warmer arid lowland zone that is primarily characterized by cacti, scattered deciduous trees, shrubs, herbs and xerophytic species; but turns into a grassy plain as the rain arrives. As tortoises used the same routes for many generations, the paths they’ve trodden into the undergrowth remained clearly recognizable even several decades after the last tortoises were seen on the island. This seasonal migration up and down the volcano is typical also to other Galápagos tortoise populations living on islands that are high enough to have a humid zone.





Opuntia forest in the lowland arid zone and meadow of the native Scalesia forest of the humid highland zone on Santa Cruz Island
©Copyright Dallas KrentzelCC BY 2.0  and Andy KraemerCC BY-NC 2.0 

The indigenous flora and fauna of most islands of the archipelago has suffered major losses and has undergone degradation during the centuries because of the invasive species introduced by humans. On Pinta, after releasing goats on the island in 1959, the native vegetation went through a long period of degradation as a consequence of the intense grazing pressure caused by the rapidly increasing feral goat population. During the 1970s, a complex conservation program was started to restore the original ecosystem of the island. The first step – the complete eradication of the feral goats – was achieved in 1999, resulting in Pinta being one of the islands with almost no exotic species. Fortunately the vegetation has been recovering rapidly since – without any loss in Pinta’s endemic plant species – but some indicators show that the biological diversity and the healthy structure of the habitat can’t be completely restored without the presence of the giant turtles.

Research shows that Galápagos tortoises are keystone species of their ecosystem, as they have a major impact on the structure and composition of the vegetation. They maintain open areas within forests and dense vegetation by grazing and by simply moving through their environment as minor bulldozers, thus – by thinning the understory vegetation and letting more sunlight in – they provide suitable habitat for many endemic plant species. They also play an important role in the dispersal and germination of seeds: they eat large amounts of plant matter that they deposit during their long distance migrations.

In 2010, 39 sterilized hybrid tortoises were released to Pinta to help to restore the ecosystem to its original condition before human’s arrival. Hopefully someday the conservation efforts to revive the Pinta Island tortoises will be successful and there will be a breeding population on the island again.

Description: Galápagos tortoises are the largest living terrestrial turtles, though their size varies across the islands/races significantly. Male individuals of the larger bodied species can reach up to 1.85 meter length and weigh over 400 kg, but the smallest one – native to Pinzón Island (Chelonoidis duncanensis) – measures only around 75 kg and 60 cm. Regarding its size, the Pinta Island tortoise was probably closer to the smaller end of the scale: Lonesome George weighed around 85-90 kg.



Galápagos tortoise with domed shell, the ancient carapace form characteristic to species from more humid islands
©Copyright Aki SasakiCC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

The carapace morphology of the Galapagos tortoises is quite diverse, the species can be distinguished based on the shape and details of their shell. There are two main varieties: the domed shell – probably the original form of their ancestor – is characteristic for populations inhabiting larger islands with humid highlands where abundant vegetation is available easily near the ground all year; the saddleback form with proportionally longer necks and limbs is common in smaller islands where the arid zone is the main habitat, providing more limited resource of food in the dry season. The raised front opening of the carapace with the longer neck is thought to be an evolutionary response that enables the tortoise to extend its head up higher to reach the leaves and shoots of trees and cactus pads. Domed tortoises tend to be also larger in size than saddle-backed species. The Pinta Island population belonged to the saddle-backed variations: as Pinta is not high and large enough – maximum altitude is 777 meters, area 60 km2 – to have a fully developed, rich cloud forest of Scalesia; the island’s humid zone is rather limited in area and native tortoises had to adapt mainly to the limitations of the available vegetation in the arid zone.



Galápagos tortoise with saddleback shell, characteristic to populations from more arid islands like Pinta Island
©Copyright Andy KraemerCC BY-NC 2.0 

Galápagos tortoises are herbivores; feeding huge amounts of grasses, leaves, cactus pads and every kind of fruits available. They have a very slow metabolism and are able to store significant amount of moisture and fat in their body and thus endure longer periods without water or food. Being cold-blooded animals, they adapt their daily routine to the ambient temperature of their environment. They bask 1-2 hours in the heat of the sun before they start their foraging tour; and in the hot season they have a ‘midday nap’ resting in the shade or half-submerged in muddy wallows trying to keep cool.



Galápagos tortoises resting and cooling in a muddy pool

Galápagos tortoises mate primarily during the hot season – the process is quite cumbersome because of the huge, heavy shells – then females migrate to dry, sandy nesting areas to lay their eggs. The female tortoise prepares a nest by arduously digging a hole with her hind feet and seals the nest with a muddy plug above the hard-shelled, billiard ball sized eggs. For saddle-backed tortoises the average clutch size is 2-7 eggs, hatching after a four to eight months incubation period. Hatchlings measure only about 50 g and 6 cm; it can take several weeks for them to dig their way to the surface where they face severe hazards of the unfriendly environment. However, once they manage to survive the first 10-15 years, they grow big enough to have no natural predators and can easily live over 100 years.

At least that’s how it was before human’s arrival…since then, introduced feral rats, cats, dogs and pigs have been a constant threat to the eggs and young tortoises. On Pinzón Island, most of the hatchlings had been killed by rats for centuries until only about 200 old adults remained. In 2012, the invasive rodent population was eradicated and 2 years later the first newly hatched tortoises were reported from the island…

Cause of extinction: Ironically, the major cause of the demise of the Galápagos giant tortoises was their amazing adaptation that once helped their ancestor to reach the archipelago on the currents and colonize the islands – the ability to survive without water of food for up to a year. From the discovery of the archipelago in the 16th century, whalers, fur hunters and pirates frequently used it as a base for restocking; taking hundreds of tortoises on board as living meet and water supplies for their long journeys. Exploitation increased in several waves during the centuries; in addition, the original ecosystem of the archipelago also had to face the usual threats islands experience with human invasion: introduction of alien predators (rats, cats, dogs, pigs), grazing competition (goats, cattle), and the degradation and loss of habitat caused by the growing agricultural activity.



Hopefully the still extant Galápagos tortoise populations will HAVE a future…


The Pinta Island tortoise poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife. 


The little Mariana fruit bat – fanihi of Guam



The little Mariana fruit bat is an extinct megabat from Guam

The little Mariana fruit bat – also known as Guam flying fox – is one of the four already extinct species of megabats or fruit bats (the family Pteropodidae).

These bats are found in tropical and subtropical areas around the world, both on islands and mainlands. They differ from ‘regular’ bats in a few important characteristics: they are herbivores, not insectivores; they rely on their keen senses of sight and smell to navigate, not echolocation (though there are some exceptions); and they are relatively larger in size.

The name fruit bat refers to the fact that these animals’ primarily food sources are different kinds of fruits supplemented with nectar and pollen from flowers, with shoots, buds, seed pods and other parts of plants. By contributing to seed dispersal and flower pollination they play an important role in their ecosystem, some of them – like the little Mariana fruit bat – are keystone species in forest regeneration of their regions.

fruit bats megabat flying fox on the sky

fruit bats megabat flying fox on the sky

Fruit bats are important species in forest regeneration
©Copyright shellac / CC BY 2.0 

Date of extinction: The last recorded sighting of the little Mariana fruit bat dates to 1968, when a female was shot and killed by hunters at the northern part of Guam while her juvenile managed to escape. Intensive surveys on the island’s fruit bat colonies couldn’t locate any single specimen of the species since that so most probably it went extinct during the 1970s.

Range: The little Mariana fruit bat was endemic to the island of Guam, located in the Marianas archipelago of the Pacific Ocean.

Habitat: Most probably the limestone forests typical in the northern part of Guam. This forest type has a 8-15 meters high canopy and a relatively sparser understory vegetation, with some scattered trees emerging above the main canopy.

Description: The little Mariana fruit bat (Pteropus tokudae) was first identified and described in 1934 by G. H. H. Tate after discovering the species on an expedition. According to his account, the newly discovered species bore a striking morphological resemblance to the Chuuk flying fox (Pteropus pelagicus), a fruit bat endemic to Micronesia.

The little Mariana fruit bat had a body length of about 150 mm, a wingspan of 650-700 mm and a body weight of around 150 gram. The wings and the abdomen were brown with some whitish hairs, the mantle and the sides of the neck were brown to light gold. It had prominent ears, a greyish-yellowish brown head with dark brown throat and chin.

There’s very little known about the food preferences, nesting and roosting habits, and reproductive pattern of the species. Most likely they fed on fruits and flowers from evergreen shrubs of the limestone forest, thus – as fruit bats are the only native frugivorous mammals in the southwestern Pacific – they played a key role in forest regeneration of the area by contributing to seed dispersal and flower pollination.

They were observed roosting with the larger Mariana flying fox (Pteropus mariannus), an endangered, medium-sized megabat found on a range of Pacific islands from Japan to Guam.

Mariana fruit bat endangered bats flying fox

Mariana fruit bat endangered bats flying fox

The endangered Mariana fruit bat (Pteropus mariannus)
©Copyright Jennifer Campbell-Smith

Cause of extinction: Little Mariana fruit bats – as every other fruit bat, known as ‘fanihi’ in the Chamorro culture of the Marianas – are considered a delicacy and were frequently hunted by native people of Guam. Although there’s no data available about the size of the population, the Guam flying fox was always regarded as rare by hunters and collectors; and with the introduction of firearms to the island the decline of the species accelerated.

Overhunting for food by humans was the main reason, but probably other factors also played a role in their extinction: the degradation and alteration of native limestone forests and the introduction of foreign predators to the ecosystem of the island by humans. The most probable ‘suspect’ is the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) – an invasive species that was brought to Guam after WW2 and is responsible for extirpating many of the native bird species of the island.

brown tree snake Guam birds flying fox extinction invasive predator species

brown tree snake Guam birds flying fox extinction invasive predator species

The brown tree snake might have been a factor in the extirpation of the little Mariana fruit bat
©Copyright Pavel KirillovCC BY-SA 2.0 


The little Mariana fruit bat poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife. 

The Steller’s sea cow – the last of the Pleistocene megafauna



Steller’s sea cow – a surviving giant of the Pleistocene

The Steller’s sea cow was one of the last survivors of the megafauna of the Pleistocene to die out in our era. The giant marine mammal was discovered in 1741 by Georg Steller – naturalist of the expedition led by Danish explorer Vitus Bering on the commission of the Imperial Russian government to chart the route between Siberia and Kamchatka – when their ship wrecked on an uninhabited island on the way back to Russia. The sea cow population was confined to the waters surrounding two small islands – the newly discovered species was completely extirpated during the following decades by expeditions of the flourishing Pacific maritime fur trade. The demise of the sea cow was so rapid that in fact everything we know about its appearance and habits is based on the detailed accounts of Steller from his posthumous published work: De bestiis marinis – The Beasts of the Sea, and the few dozen skeletons that were found from the mid 1800s until today.



Model of the Steller’s sea cow based on descriptions and skeletons; a reconstruction made for the Skin & Bones project of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History by
©Copyright Diana Marques

Date of extinction: Johann Friedrich von Brandt, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences concluded based on reports from fur hunters following Vitus Bering’s route to Alaska that the Steller’s sea cow was extinct by 1768, only 27 years after it was discovered by the Bering expedition.
However, there were some reports of alleged sightings dating after the official extinction date, even from the mid 20th century.

Range: At the time of its discovery, the Steller’s sea cow had only one last population: in the surrounding waters of the Bering and Copper Islands, two members of the Commander Chain between the Aleutians and the Kamchatka Peninsula.
Later discovered evidence of bone fragments proves the existence of another population in the northern Bering Sea at St. Lawrence Island around the 9-10th centuries; and based on bone fragments and accounts of Aleut people it is probable that another population persisted into the late 18th century at the Near Islands (western Aleutian Islands).
Fossil finds from the Pleistocene show that before the Ice Age sea cows were probably ubiquitous along the edge of the Pacific from Japan to the Baja Peninsula.

extinct steller's sea cow grazing kelp forest hunting

extinct steller’s sea cow grazing kelp forest hunting

Illustration of the Steller’s sea cow grazing on kelp
©Copyright Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc

Habitat: The Steller’s sea cow used to inhabit the cold shallow waters along the shores.

Description: Steller’s sea cows (Hydrodamalis gigas) were large sirenians, members of the once-diverse family Dugongidae. Their closest living relatives are the dugong and three manatee species, but instead of the warm tropical seas they adapted to living in frigid Arctic waters. Their huge size – adults grew to be 8-9 m long, weighing up to 10 tons – their thick blubber and outer skin were effective adaptation methods to conserve the heat of their body in the icy sea and to prevent injury from the sharp rocks of the shallow waters.

A baby Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostrus) drinks milk from its mother. Three Sisters Spring, Crystal River, Florida, United States of America.

A baby Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostrus) drinks milk from its mother. Three Sisters Spring, Crystal River, Florida, United States of America.

Manatees are sirenians closely related to the extinct Steller’s sea cow
©Copyright Alex Mustard

They were obligate algivores eating seaweed; but being unable to completely submerge, their food source was reduced to kelp and seagrass species inhabiting the coastal waters, with their canopy not deeper than 1 meter below the tide. They could hold their breath for a few minutes under water and the inside of their flippers was covered with bristles to anchor them down and prevent them from being swept away by strong waves. The flippers and the forked tail fluke were used for swimming and walking in shallow water.

The sea cow’s snout and mouth were perfectly adapted to grazing on kelp: the snout pointed downwards, with large and broad upper lips extending beyond the lower jaw. Instead of teeth they had white bristles on their upper lip, with some of them protruding from the muzzle; and two keratinous plates in their mouth, used for chewing.

sea cow dugong

sea cow dugong

Portrait of a dugong, the closest living relative of the Steller’s sea cow
©Copyright Laura Dinraths

Sea cows were highly social animals, probably monogamous. They lived in small family groups, guarded and helped each other and protected their calves against predators. Females had one calf after a more than one year long pregnancy period.

Cause of extinction: The rapid demise of the Steller’s sea cow population of the Commander Islands was apparently the consequence of overhunting for their tasty meat and valuable subcutaneous fat by European and Russian sailors and fur traders. The populations of the Aleut and St. Lawrence Islands were wiped out by native people for the same reasons.

However, recent studies (James A. Estes) based on modern methods of mathematical simulations to model indirect community interactions prove that the extinction of the Steller’s sea cow at the Commander Islands would have been inevitable anyway as a consequence of the ongoing overkill of sea otters by Russian and Aleut hunters after the onset of the Pacific maritime fur trade in the 1740s.

endangered sea otter portrait cute on back

endangered sea otter portrait cute on back

The sea otter is a keystone species in the trophic cascade of the kelp forest
©Copyright Robin Agarwal / CC BY-NC-NC 2.0 

Several observations during the 20th century in different areas of the Northern Pacific showed evidence that sea otters are key species in the trophic cascades of the kelp forest: they maintain the ecological equilibrium by limiting the number of sea urchins, one of their main food sources. Sea urchins are herbivorous animals thriving in kelp forests: without sea otters their population increases rapidly, creating kelp-free dead zones and leaving other herbivores with nothing to eat. The elimination of sea otters from the Commander Islands ecosystem caused a chain reaction reshaping the whole habitat: with the decline of the kelp forest the environmental carrying capacity for sea cows drastically reduced – the species most probably would have starved to extinction in a few decades.

The example of the Steller’s sea cow has major significance as it supports the long debated hypothesis about the sudden extinction of the New World’s megafauna at the turn of the Pleistocene/Holocene eras that the directly caused extinction of a few keystone species responsible for maintaining the balance of their ecosystem may have resulted in the coextinction of other species. This theory explains the sudden disappearance of several other giant species: for example, the Haast’s Eagle vanished from New Zealand along with its prey, the giant moa, that went extinct about a hundred years after the Maori landed on New Zealand.

Haast eagle preying on giant moa New Zealand Pleistocene megafauna extinction

Haast eagle preying on giant moa New Zealand Pleistocene megafauna extinction

Pleistocene giants from New Zealand: the Haast’s eagle preying on a giant moa
©Copyright Nick Keller

The Steller’s sea cow poster at the top of this post is available in my store on Redbubble, with design variations more suitable for apparel and other products. My whole profit goes to the Sea Shepherd to support their fight to protect our oceans and marine wildlife.