Category Archives: endangered and extinct animals

The great auk

the-great-auk-razorbill-penguin

the-great-auk-razorbill-penguin

The great auk – the eponym of the penguins

Nowadays when we mention penguins everybody thinks of the flightless aquatic birds of the Antarctic proudly wearing their tuxedos. Few people now that the original penguin – the eponym of these popular birds – was the great auk (Pinguinus impennis): an already extinct bird species that once used to be fairly well-known by the people of Europe and North America. Actually, taxonomically the great auk and penguins are only distantly related; but when exploring the seas of the Southern Hemisphere European sailors named the newly discovered species due to their physical resemblance to the great auk. The two taxa are widely considered as an example of convergent evolution and ecological corollary.

Date of extinction:  The nesting colonies of the great auk were nearly eliminated by humans by the 16th century along the European side of the Atlantic and by the end of the 18th century along the American coast. The last nesting colony remained on a remote, inaccessible islet near Iceland – in 1830, the Great Auk Rock was destroyed by a volcanic eruption. The birds moved to the nearby Eldey Rock, where the colony quickly diminished – the adult specimens and their eggs were collected for museums for preservation and display. The last pair incubating an egg was killed on 3 June 1844. The last confirmed sighting of a living specimen dates from the shores of Newfoundland in 1852.

extinct-great-auk-Errol-Fuller-Last-Stand

extinct-great-auk-Errol-Fuller-Last-Stand

The last stand – oil painting of Errol Fuller, writer and painter, expert on extinct birds
©Copyright Errol Fuller

Range: Once great auks were fairly common in the coastal area on both sides of the North Atlantic, the estimated maximum population was in the millions. They inhabited mainly the colder coastal waters from Greenland and Norway to Canada and Great Britain, occasionally reaching even the warmer seas of the Iberian Peninsula and Florida.

Habitat: Great auks spent most of their lives in the sea, foraging on smaller fish – they only left the water for land when breeding. They nested in very dense colonies on remote rocky islands with rich feeding areas around them, where the sloping shorelines provided easy access to the sea. It is believed that the great auk never had more than 20 breeding colonies – some of the known localities were Funk Island near Newfundland, St. Kilda off Scotland, Geirfuglasker near Iceland, The Gulf of St. Lawrence and Eldey Island.

great-auk-specimen-glasgow museums collection

great-auk-specimen-glasgow museums collection

Great auk specimen of the Glasgow Museums Collection
©Copyright Glasgow Museums

Description:  Great auks were large, flightless seabirds in the family Alcidae; standing about 75 to 85 cm tall and weighing up to 5 kg. In overall appearance they looked similar to their smaller living relatives, the razorbills. Male and female were similar in plumage, with probably a small difference in size. They appeared chubby due to a thick layer of fat necessary for keeping their bodies warm in the cold water. The adult birds had black plumage dorsally, with white breasts, bellies, and undertail-coverts, with some seasonal and ontogenic differences. Their wings had a white trailing edge and in breeding plumage there was a large white patch in front of each eye, which was replaced in the non-breeding period by a broad, white band and a grey row of feathers extending from the eye to the ear. Their bills were robust and ridged and curved downward at the top. The reduced wings were only about 15 cm in length and were used to propel themselves underwater during dives.

Between late May and early June female auks used to lay one egg each year. The egg had a characteristic, elongated shape with a marbling pattern of varying black, brown or grayish spots and lines on a yellowish base. The size of the egg averaged around 12-13 cm length and 7-8 cm across at the widest.

great-auk-eggs-photo-painting

great-auk-eggs-photo-painting

The characteristic egg of the great auk: an old photograph from 1844 from The Auk, the quarterly journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union on the left
and a colored lithograph by F. W. Frohawk from 1888 on the right ©Copyright Wellcome Collection / CC BY 4.0

Great auk chicks had grey down, the black neck of the juveniles was mottled white. They had white rings around the eyes but instead of the white patch of the adults they had a grey eye line extending to below the ears.

Great auks were excellent swimmers, able to evade capture by people in boats. They were able to dive to great depths (even around 100 meters) and could hold their breath for 15 minutes – that is longer than what a seal is capable of. When on land, they walked slowly and awkwardly with short steps.

Turnaround video of a stuffed great auk and its closest living relative, a razorbill
©Copyright Naturalis Biodiversity Center

Cause of extinction: The story of the extinction of the great auk is one of those stories about the endless stupidity, greed and selfishness of humanity that leave you with incomprehension and seething with anger. In comparison to other bird species that went extinct around the same time, the steps leading to the total disappearance of the great auk are quite well documented – especially the last, brutally cruel acts of the 19th century. If you are interested in the details I recommend you reading Errol Fuller’s excellent book: The Great Auk: The Extinction of the Original Penguin.

To summarize: after being intensively hunted by humans at least from the 8th century – mainly for food and fishing bait – this species was eliminated eventually to make pillows from its down, and to provide stuffed specimens and eggs as collectibles for rich Europeans and museums.

A few years ago, an international team of scientists began a discussion about the possibilities of reintroducing the great auk into its former natural habitat by recreating the species using DNA extracted form fossils or preserved organs (edited into the cells of the closest living relative, the razorbill) and implanting fertilized embryos into a bird big enough to be capable to lay a great auk egg.

great-auk-statue-iceland

great-auk-statue-iceland

Life-sized great auk statue on the Reykjanes headland (Iceland), one of the last known locations of the bird
©Copyright Chuck Reback

The Siamese bala shark

burnt-tailed-barb-siamese-bala-sharks

burnt-tailed-barb-siamese-bala-sharks

Siamese bala shark – also known as burnt-tailed barb

These days, with all the heavy pollution of our waters from different sources and the massive overfishing with industrial methods, capturing for international aquarium trade might be the least concern threat for most fish species, but for some freshwater fish endemic only to a limited area of one or two river basins it can be a deciding factor in survival or extinction. The Siamese bala shark (Balantiocheilos ambusticauda) a.k.a burnt-tailed barb happens to be one of these species – this freshwater cyprinid fish is listed on the IUCN Red List as critically endangered, possibly extinct in the 1970s.

Date of extinction: The last confirmed sighting of the species in the wild dates from 1974, although well-known Thai freshwater fish explorer Kittipong Jaruthanin reportedly found some specimens in 1986 in their natural habitat at the Cao Phraya River near Bangkok. All surveys carried out since the 1980s covering the whole confirmed range of the species failed to find any specimens and there are no living specimens in captivity either. Given the estimated generation length of around 10 years, the Siamese bala shark is most probably extinct.

Range: Authentic specimens are known only from Thailand, from the river basins of the Mae Khlong and Chaou Phraya. Reports from the Mekong basin in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos were most probably false – the species can be easily mistaken for the closely related B. melanopterus.

Habitat: The Siamese bala shark used to inhabit freshwater wetlands (lowland riverine and marshland floodplains). There’s very little known about the needs and life cycle of the species.

Description: Taxonomically the Siamese bala shark (Balantiocheilos ambusticauda) is not a true shark, the common name only refers to the body-shape and fins of the species strongly resembling the characteristic shape of sharks.

Silver-shark-closely-related-to-siamese-bala-shark

Silver-shark-closely-related-to-siamese-bala-shark

Bala sharks are not true sharks
©Copyright Gogo78 CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Balantiocheilos-melanopterus-aquarium

Balantiocheilos-melanopterus-aquarium

The silver shark or tricolor sharkminnow (Balantiocheilos melanopterus) is an endangered species
©Copyright Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Siamese bala shark is closely related to the well-known aquarium fish Silver shark (Balantiocheilos melanopterus, an endangered species) and was recognized as a separate species only in 2007, based on a holotype collected in 1967.

According to Biotaxa/Zootaxa: “Balantiocheilos ambusticauda…can be distinguished from its only congener, B. melanopterus, in having a shorter snout (27.5–33.9% HL vs. 33.2–39.1), posteriorly directed grooves at rictus curved (vs. straight), and narrower black margins on the pelvic and anal fins (on distal third or less vs. on distal half or more).” Bala sharks will grow to a maximum length of around 35 cm.

To my best knowledge, all photographs on the internet labeled as Siamese bala shark show the Silver shark in fact.

Video of a silver shark shoal in aquarium By Paul Talbot http://www.majesticaquariums.com.au

Cause of extinction:  Besides overfishing for international aquarium trade up until the 1980s, the changing agricultural methods applying more and more insecticides and chemical fertilizers and the building of dams for water management caused the extinction of the Siamese bala shark by decreasing the habitat of the species and causing significant deterioration in water quality.

The Madeiran large white butterfly

madeiran-large-white-butterfly

madeiran-large-white-butterfly

Madeiran large white butterfly

The Madeiran large white butterfly is one of the many species that were last seen in the 20th century. We can’t absolutely be sure about the extinction of these species – the IUCN Red List assesses them usually as critically endangered, possibly extinct – but in the case of this butterfly unfortunately it’s rather certain that there is no hope anymore: since the 1980s there were several searching attempts organized to find living specimens on the relatively small island of Madeira – all unsuccessful.

Female Madeiran large white

Female Madeiran large white

Female Madeiran large white
©Copyright Antonio Aguiar via Arkive

male Madeiran large white

male Madeiran large white

Male Madeiran large white
©Copyright Antonio Aguiar via Arkive

Date of extinction: Many sites list 1977 as the date of the last confirmed sighting – in fact, the last specimens of the species were collected in 1986.

Range: Endemic to the Macaronesian island of Madeira.

Habitat: The Madeiran large white used to live in the laurisilva (laurel forests) of the north-exposed valleys of the island where many nectar-rich plants like thistles and knapweed and diverse types of crucifers – the preferred host plants of the larval stage – grow.

Description: The Madeiran large white (Pieris wollastoni) was considered for many years as a subspecies of the fairly common Large white (Pieris brassicae) – the cabbage butterfly, but it is now regarded as a good species of its own. It was first described in 1882 and – as its name suggests – it had considerable size: 67 -72 mm wide white wings with dark tips and spots on the forewings (females were colored more yellowish, with more spots than the males). The caterpillars were green with black lumps and yellow stripes on the upper part of the body. They used to produce several generations a year from March until late October.

description-Madeiran-large-white-butterfly-Butler-1882

description-Madeiran-large-white-butterfly-Butler-1882

First description of the Madeiran large white
by Butler in 1882 from the Annals and Magazine of Natural History

The Madeiran large white is one of the species featured on a stamp collection issued in 1997 about the butterflies of the island.

Madeiran-Large-White-Pieris-brassicae-wollastoni

Madeiran-Large-White-Pieris-brassicae-wollastoni

 

Cause of extinction: Continuing decline in the area, extent and quality of the natural habitat and possibly a parasitoid wasp or an outbreak of virus infection caused by introducing the small white (Pieris rapae) to Madeira in the 1970s were the most important factors leading eventually to the extinction of the subspecies.

My special thanks to Mr. Antonio Aguiar for his expert help.

Dodo – the emblem of extinction

dodo the emblem of extinction

dodo the emblem of extinction


Dodo – the emblem of extinction

The dodo is probably the most famous in the long line of extinct animals of the last few hundreds of years. Being the species that made humankind realize the fact that an animal can actually and permanently disappear from existence because of the impacts of human civilization made the dodo a generally known icon of extinction; and appearing as a character in Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and in the popular animated movie franchise Ice Age established its prominent position in modern pop culture.

Date of extinction: The last widely accepted sighting of a dodo dates to 1662.

Range: The dodo was endemic to Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean about 2000 km off the southeast coast of the African continent, east of Madagascar.

Habitat: Natural rainforests at the coastal area of the volcanic island with tropical, humid climate.

Cause of extinction: With the arrival (1598) and settling of the Dutch sailors, the rainforests of the island were gradually destroyed and replaced by plantations of imported crops (sugar cane, rice, tobacco, citrus trees etc.) to cater to the needs of the drastically increasing human population. With its natural habitat disappearing rapidly, the flightless, tame bird was hunted to extinction by the predators – dogs, cats, rats, pigs and macaques – introduced to the island by the settlers. According to prevalent opinion the settlers themselves also consumed the dodo’s meet, though recent archaeological investigations have found scant evidence of human predation.

George Edward's Dodo painting

George Edward’s Dodo painting


One of the most copied but incorrect depictions of the dodo:
Roelant Savory’s painting of ornithologist George Edwards’ stuffed specimen, around 1620

Description: Recent scientific examinations also show that the common portrayal of the dodo in literature and pop culture as the archetype of the plump, gluttony, dumb(ish) bird is largely incorrect. Descriptions about the bird from the 17th century are contradictory regarding the details (colors, plumage, tail, beak etc.) of its look, with only a few – rather poor quality – drawings made of wild individuals. The numerous depictions created in the later centuries either copy the few originals made of living dodos brought to Europe and overfed in captivity or were made of badly stuffed specimens. These stuffed specimens were all damaged or lost during the centuries until only a dried head and a foot remained with soft tissue (in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History); along with a few dozen of incomplete and composite skeletons und subfossils mainly found in the excavations of the Mare aux Songes swamp in Southern Mauritius around 1865 and 2005.

Dodo skeleton Durrell Wildlife Park

Dodo skeleton Durrell Wildlife Park


A composite dodo skeleton from the Durrell Wildlife Park,
© Josh More – www.starmind.org 

Based on the scientific and forensic examinations of these remains and the few legit depictions of living specimens in the 17th century in Europe and India, dodos were neither particularly fat nor dumb – their build and brain size agrees with the parameters of bird species living in similar habitats and conditions. The dodo was about 1 meter tall and weighed about 15 kg; his closest relatives are Asian pigeons but the dodo adapted perfectly to a life on an isolated island with no predators and evolved to a flightless bird with short wings, a bulky body, stubby, strong legs and strong, crooked beak.

accurate dodo depiction Mughal Ustad Mansur India

accurate dodo depiction Mughal Ustad Mansur India


One of the few more accurate dodo depictions from India
by Ustad Mansur c. 1625

However, as the skeletons don’t really provide any clue about the outer details, fact is that after 350 years of its disappearance we have only speculations about how exactly the dodo could look like…

12 images for environmental awareness

Nature, wildlife, animals, and environmental awareness were a natural part of my life for as long as I can remember.

I was growing up reading Gerald Durrell’s books; with my family going every weekend on long hikes in the surrounding woods and mountains; and taking home every kinds of stray, wounded or abandoned animals from fallen, injured nestlings to baby bunnies thrown out after Easter (I have to admit though that our parents weren’t always completely enthusiastic about this habit…).
Through this connection with nature and animals, being aware of the impacts our everyday life and human activity in general has on our environment became also a part of our consciousness: my sister and I learned at a very young age about issues like the diminishing rainforests and the increasing pollution of our oceans, and about how to do our best to lessen or avoid the harm we cause to our planet.

critically endangered animals

critically endangered animals

And I remember that even as a kid I was constantly stunned – and enraged – by how little the vast majority of our peers, their parents and our teachers knew and cared about these things. I remember a particular conversation I had as a teenager trying to explain the importance of preserving the Amazon forest to my friends and I remember how they dismissed my reasoning labeled as naive, unimportant and exaggerated.

extinct animals last seen in the 20th century

extinct animals last seen in the 20th century

More than 20 years later, as humankind almost succeeded to literally smother a whole planet into its waste, with desperate warnings about global warming and plastic pollution screamed at us from the media, and internet petitions circling on Facebook, one would think this behavior has generally changed.

Well, it hasn’t. Although there has been some advancement regarding environmental awareness and there are more and more people who do everything and beyond to save and protect what is still left of the planet, most people I know aren’t even willing to collect their waste selectively.

animals endangered by human activity industrial overfishing deforestation agriculture dams

animals endangered by human activity industrial overfishing deforestation agriculture dams

I don’t get this attitude, I never will. I could go on for pages about the reasons, but it doesn’t lead anywhere. I don’t know if being appreciative of the beauty and diversity of our planet and its wildlife or feeling responsible for the harm we cause to other living beings can be taught – I can’t imagine my sister or I could have turned out any other way, and I know a lot of people who didn’t have the kind of family background we had growing up and still think the same way as we do.

My niece is about 10 years old; she loves animals and nature, knows a lot about wildlife conservation and environmental issues and does what she can on her level. But most of her friends and classmates (and their parents and teachers…) have basically no idea or just don’t think these things are important – same story again.  And I see that most of the kids would be inherently interested and would care but with the practically non-existent school education about these subjects and without proper behavior patterns from the parents it’s a lost case.

recently extinct animals 21st century

recently extinct animals 21st century

It has been my conviction for a long time that making environmental consciousness a fundamental part of education at school in every country would be crucial – but I‘m not in a position to achieve this. So – as I’m working partly in graphic design – I created my poster series about endangered and extinct animals. My main intention was to try to give a useful tool to help dedicated parents, teachers or communities who’d like to do something to get the kids’ attention and get them involved – and maybe, hopefully, their parents too (yes, I’m still naive…).

extinct bird species

extinct bird species

The poster series features 12 endangered and 12 already extinct animals. It’s not a random collection: I selected the species very thoughtfully to give the opportunity to cover as many aspects of environmental issues and wildlife conservation as possible. With the help of the posters the kids can learn about these animals and on their example it’s easy to talk about a wide range of topics: about the impacts of pollution and global warming; about how human activity like agriculture, deforestation, building dams and roads etc. changes the habitat of animals; about how overfishing and industrial fishing like netting kills marine wildlife; about poaching and holding wild animals captive for the sake of human entertainment or hobbies; about the vulnerability of islands to invasive species; about the utmost importance of clear waters; and about general things like how an ecosystem works, how can the tiniest element of a system be as significant as the biggest, and why it is so important to maintain the balance.

And, of course, about the possibilities of wildlife conservation and preserving or restoring the health of our environment: everyday acts like conscious buying choices, reducing plastic waste, recycling and sparing resources, using renewable energy; scientific methods from inventing non-polluting or biodegradable materials to resurrecting already extinct or critically endangered species by captive breeding programs and cloning.

animals endangered by illegal trade and poaching

animals endangered by illegal trade and poaching

The posters portray a wide range and diversity of species: mammals, birds, fishes, insects; amazing, cute, weird or cool animals; well known, emblematic and relatively unknown species; endemic and global species; species of islands and continents, oceans, seas and rivers, forests and grasslands, mountains and lowlands; recently and hundreds of years ago extinct animals from all around the planet.

The abbreviation and year under the name refers to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List category of the species: EX – extinct, CR – critically endangered, EN – endangered.

I made the posters available by setting up a store on RedBubble, with a small profit that goes entirely to the Sea Shepherd to support their efforts to save our oceans and marine wildlife.

animals hunted to extinction

animals hunted to extinction

Whether I believe my idea could work, and 12 images could really make any difference?
I don’t know – it’s just a tool, and without dedicated people who put their time, efforts and knowledge in using these posters they are just decoration. But even then, if a kid spends every day in a classroom with these posters on the wall it’s more likely s/he will pay attention and start to ask questions…I think at this point the only chance we have is to make sure that future generations are brought up with an attitude that makes sure they are precisely and painfully aware of the consequences of their everyday acts, that the human race is part of the intricate ecosystem of the Earth, and that each and every individual is personally responsible for the future our planet has – or doesn’t have.

endangered species with successful conservation efforts

endangered species with successful conservation efforts