Extinct Animals

Historical illustrations aren’t only important for their beauty, but also because they document biodiversity that is quickly disappearing. If we don’t become more sensitive to our impact on nature we’ll continue to lose fascinating creatures.

The Tasmanian Tiger Hylacinus cynocephalus (1863)

The Thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf has been extinct since 1930. It was a carnivorous marsupial native to Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania. Despite it’s canine appearance and stripes, it was not related to wolves or tigers, but it held a similar role in its local ecosystem as an apex predator. The thylacine had a pouch on its abdomen to hold its young much like female kangaroos, but unlike kangaroos both male and female thylacines had pouches. It is believed that hunting was mostly responsible for the thylacine’s extinction, but disease and human encroachment into its habitat likely played a part as well. The closest living relatives to the thylacine are the Tasmanian devil and the numbat.

Dodo Raphus cucullatus (1772)

The Dodo must be the world’s most famous extinct animal, recognized globally as a symbol of extinction. Dutch sailors first encountered the dodo on the island of Mauritius in 1598. As with many island birds, the dodo had evolved large and flightless, making it easy prey for hunters. Hunting wasn’t the only problem though. The forest habitat of the dodos was chopped, and introduced species such as rats, pigs and macaques caused havoc in the ecosystem. The last recorded sighting of a dodo was in 1662. For over a century the disappearance of the dodo was considered a myth, partly because extinction wasn’t proven until Georges Cuvier’s research in 1796, and partly because people just didn’t believe the dodo ever existed. It seemed too strange of an animal for most people.

Giant Ground Sloth Megatherium americanum

This illustration comes courtesy of Georges Cuvier’s most famous book, Le Règne Animal. We wrote about it in our very first post! The Giant Ground Sloth was an enormous creature, standing TWENTY feet tall and weighing 4 tons. It went extinct around 12,000 years ago, likely due to a combination of a shrinking suitable habitat as well as hunting by humans. Some fossils of Megatherium have been found bearing cut marks made from human tools, proving that humans have been contributing to animal extinction for thousands and thousands of years. The first Megatherium fossil was discovered in 1788 in Argentina and shipped to Madrid the following year where Georges Cuvier studied it and determined by comparative anatomy that it was a sloth. The actual fossil from the above illustration is still housed in Madrid in the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales.  

Jamaican Petrel Pterodroma caribbaea (1907)

An unsolved mystery! The Jamaican Petrel was last spotted in 1879, but due to the difficulty in observing nocturnal petrels it hasn’t actually been classified as extinct. It may exist on the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Dominica. The Jamaican petrel is (or was) a small seabird related to the black-capped petrel. If it is now extinct it was likely due to the introduction of rats and mongooses into its habitat.

North Island Giant Moa Dinornis novaezealandiae (1907)

The North Island Giant Moa was a giant 2-legged, flightless bird. Males have been estimated to weigh between 55-88 kg, while females were an incredible 78-249 kg! It lived on the North Island of New Zealand, in a habitat that was likely unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years. Unfortunately that all changed when humans began to settle. Pre-human arrival the moa had few predators, but after the Māori people began to settle in New Zealand around 1320-1350, the moa was hunted, which eventually lead to its extinction by the 15th century. It is also believed that the introduction of Polynesian dogs (also now extinct) attributed to the extinction, as the dogs ate moa chicks.

Leguatia Gigantea (1907)

Leguatia Gigantea is a bird first described in 1690 by French naturalist François Leguat on the island of Mauritius. Leguatia Gigantea (known as ‘Le Géant’ or ‘The Giant Bird’) was supposedly a gigantic water-bird, standing 6 feet tall with white plumage and pink under its wings. No bones of the animal have ever been found, but Le Géant has appeared over and over again in various publications. An article on Scientific American by Darren Naish strongly suggests Leguat confused flamingos with this imagined new species, and this does seem likely as flamingoes existed on the island at the time… but (luckily for mystery) not everyone agrees. Walter Rothschild who authored Extinct Birds (1907) from which the illustration above comes from, was aware of this possible flamingo origin and still thought their might be truth to the Le Géant story. So, let’s leave this one as a cryptid.

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