Extinct and Near-Extinct Animals
Nature Bulletin No. 248-A Dece3mber 10, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
EXTINCT AND NEAR-EXTINCT ANIMALS
In the past 2000 years, more than a hundred kinds of birds and more
than a hundred kinds of mammals have disappeared from the earth. The
last one of each is dead. It also seems likely that, among the less
conspicuous lower animals -- reptiles, fish, insects, etc. -- several times
as many species are gone forever; but their passing was not often
noticed or mentioned in histories. Of the known total of vanished-
species, more than a third dropped out during the past 50 years, about
another third in the 19th Century, and a little less than a third in the
previous 1800 years. With few exceptions these were all wiped out,
directly or indirectly, by man.
Not since he lived in caves and played hide and seek with saber-toothed
tigers has any predatory animal challenged man for dominance of the
earth. He has made short work of them, as well as many others that
furnished a handy source of food or clothing, served as ornaments, or
offered sport. Further, for each species or subspecies that has
disappeared completely within the Christian Era, six times as many
others are seriously threatened.
The word "dodo" is commonly used to signify someone or something
very silly or very dead. The Dodo was a large heavy grotesque bird --
stupid, flightless and ground-nesting -- that lived on two islands in the
Indian Ocean until 1681 when the last one vanished because of man and
the hogs he imported. Another famous example is the Great Auk, a
large swimming bird somewhat similar to the penguin -- alert and swift
in water but helpless and unable to fly or to run on land. Two centuries
ago there were millions of them on the rocky shores and islands of
northern Europe and North America. The eggs were taken and the birds
slaughtered by the sailors for food but the auks' doom was sealed and
the last one clubbed to death in 1844, after it was found that there was a
market for their feathers.
The story of the Passenger Pigeon and how countless millions of them
lived in the hardwood forests east of the Great Plains is well known.
The last one died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Less familiar is the fact
that the only parrot native to this country, the brilliantly-colored little
Carolina Parakeet which was common in Illinois in pioneer days, was
last seen alive about 1920 in the backwoods of South Carolina and
Florida. Word got around that it was "mischievous to orchards". That
was enough. The Large Ivory-billed Woodpecker may now be extinct,
because it lived only in swampy forests of big virgin timber which have
virtually all been cut for lumber. The Heath Hen, an eastern relative of
our prairie chicken, in spite of a century of special protection and
pampering, made its last stand on Martha's Vineyard, an island on the
Massachusetts coast. The last one, an old bachelor, died -- perhaps of
boredom -- in 1933.
The American Bison or "Buffalo", which once ranged over a third of
this continent in herds adding up to over sixty millions, was reduced by
hunters to a scant thousand animals in the 1890's. Fortunately, its
extinction was foreseen in time and, largely through the efforts of the
American Bison Society organized in 1905, it was saved and there are
now more than 40,000 of these big beasts living under close protection
in this country and Canada. But the Eastern Bison, a subspecies that
lived entirely east of the Mississippi, had been killed off completely by
1825. The Eastern Wapiti or Elk lingered on until about 1855. Its two
upper canine teeth were highly prized for watch charms by members of
a "benevolent and protective" fraternal order -- a fact which
undoubtedly hastened its end.
The Duck-billed Platypus is not extinct.
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Update: June 2012