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Extinction

Rhett Butler
Background: Extinction is the death of a species. Scientists recognize five historical mass extinction events in the past -- the Ordovician, the Devonian, the Permian, the Triassic and the Cretaceous -- and most would agree that we are currently in the midst of a sixth great extinction, the Holocene.

The Holocene extinction is the first extinction event directly caused by another species -- us. It results from habitat destruction combined with hunting and the introduction of alien species to environments where they do not occur naturally. Scientists estimate that extinction rates are presently 1,000-10,000 times the historical background rate of about 1 species per million per year. They say that extinction rates will significantly increase in coming years.

Articles



Saving the survivor: China scrambles to keep the finless porpoise from extinction
(10/22/2014) On the morning of July 14, 2002 Qi Qi ate breakfast as he always did. As the world’s only captive baiji – or Yangtze river dolphin – Qi Qi was something of a celebrity in China and his caretakers kept a close eye on his health. That care may explain why, after being injured by fishermen, he lived an impressive 22 years in the Freshwater Dolphin Research Center in Wuhan, China.


Top scientists raise concerns over commercial logging on Woodlark Island
(10/21/2014) A number of the world's top conservation scientists have raised concerns about plans for commercial logging on Woodlark Island, a hugely biodiverse rainforest island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The scientists, with the Alliance of Leading Environmental Scientists and Thinkers (ALERT), warn that commercial logging on the island could imperil the island's stunning local species and its indigenous people.


With death of rhino, only six northern white rhinos left on the planet
(10/20/2014) Rhino conservation suffered another tragic setback this weekend with the sudden death of Suni, a male northern white rhinoceros at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Suni's passing means there are only six northern white rhinos left in the world, and only one breeding male. 'Consequently the species now stands at the brink of complete extinction, a sorry testament to the greed of the human race,' wrote the Conservancy.


Extinction island? Plans to log half an island could endanger over 40 species
(09/22/2014) Woodlark Island is a rare place on the planet today. This small island off the coast Papua New Guinea is still covered in rich tropical forest, an ecosystem shared for thousands of years between tribal peoples and a plethora of species, including at least 42 found no-where else. Yet, like many such wildernesses, Woodlark Island is now facing major changes: not the least of them is a plan to log half of the island.


Is there hope for the vaquita? IUCN calls for action to save world's smallest, rarest porpoise
(09/19/2014) Since the baiji was declared extinct in the early aughts, the vaquita has taken its unenviable position as the world’s most threatened cetacean. The tiny porpoise currently numbers around 100, with accidental entanglement in gillnets primarily responsible for its decline. In response, the IUCN recently issued a statement calling for immediate action to curb vaquita bycatch and head off its extinction – which otherwise may lie just around the corner.


Thought wiped out by climate change, 'extinct' snail rediscovered in Seychelles
(09/09/2014) The Aldabra banded snail was declared extinct in 1997 as one of the world’s first recorded direct casualties of climate change. But last month, a monitoring team found a population on one of the atoll’s islands, surprising the team and giving hope that other species whose habitats are being degraded by climate change may still be able to cling to existence.


The last of her kind: centennial of the death of the world's last passenger pigeon
(09/01/2014) They once numbered in the billions, flying 60 miles per hour in flocks that darkened the sky. But on September 1, 1914, one hundred years ago today, the last member of what may have been the most numerous bird species on the planet died in a cage in the Cincinnati zoo.


Scientists name new endangered species after the company that will decide its fate
(08/24/2014) Scientists have discovered a new snail species near a cement quarry in Malaysia, which as far as they know lives nowhere else in the world. It lives on a limestone hill called Kanthan given as a concession to an international company Lafarge. The cement producer quarries the hill for raw materials. As a result, the scientists have named the species after the company that will decide if it goes extinct.


Why conservationists need a little hope: saving themselves from becoming the most depressing scientists on the planet
(08/19/2014) Here's a challenge: take a conservationist out for a drink and ask them about their work. Nine times out of ten—or possibly more—you'll walk away feeling frustrated, despondent, and utterly hopeless. Yet a few conservation scientist are not just trying to save species from extinction, but also working to save their field—their life's work—from slipping into total despair.


13 newly-discovered birds declared extinct
(08/18/2014) In a recent update of the IUCN Red List, scientists have identified 13 new bird species that have gone extinct since 1500. In total the list now finds that at least 140 bird species gone extinct in the past five hundred years, representing 1.3 percent of the world's total known birds.


87 new bird species considered threatened with extinction
(07/29/2014) Scientists have added 361 new bird species to the IUCN Red List following a major taxonomic review of non-passerine birds, i.e. non-perching or non-songbirds. Worryingly, 87 of these new birds are threatened with extinction, a percentage nearly double the overall threatened percentage for all birds, which currently sits at 13 percent.


It's not just extinction: meet defaunation
(07/24/2014) Get ready to learn a new word: defaunation. Fauna is the total collection of animals—both in terms of species diversity and abundance—in a given area. So, defaunation, much like deforestation, means the loss of animals in all its myriad forms, including extinction, extirpation, or population declines.


Desperate measures: researchers say radical approaches needed to beat extinctions
(07/24/2014) Today, in the midst of what has been termed the “Sixth Great Extinction” by many in the scientific community, humans are contributing to dizzying rates of species loss and ecosystem changes. A new analysis suggests the time may have come to start widely applying intensive, controversial methods currently used only as “last resort” strategies to save the word’s most imperiled species.


Too much of a good thing: fertilizer 'one of the three major drivers of biodiversity loss this century'
(07/14/2014) The world’s grasslands are being destabilized by fertilization, according to a paper recently published in the journal Nature. In a study of 41 grassland communities on five continents, researchers found that the presence of fertilizer weakened grassland species diversity.


Only 15 percent of world's biodiversity hotspots left intact
(07/14/2014) The world's 35 biodiversity hotspots—which harbor 75 percent of the planet's endangered land vertebrates—are in more trouble than expected, according to a sobering new analysis of remaining primary vegetation. In all less than 15 percent of natural intact vegetation is left in the these hotspots, which include well-known jewels such as Madagascar, the tropical Andes, and Sundaland.


Booming populations, rising economies, threatened biodiversity: the tropics will never be the same
(07/07/2014) For those living either north or south of the tropics, images of this green ring around the Earth's equator often include verdant rainforests, exotic animals, and unchanging weather; but they may also be of entrenched poverty, unstable governments, and appalling environmental destruction. A massive new report, The State of the Tropics, however, finds that the truth is far more complicated.


Unrelenting population growth driving global warming, mass extinction
(06/26/2014) It took humans around 200,000 years to reach a global population of one billion. But, in two hundred years we've septupled that. In fact, over the last 40 years we've added an extra billion approximately every dozen years. And the United Nations predicts we'll add another four billion—for a total of 11 billion—by century's end.


'Hope springs eternal': the anniversary of the death of Lonesome George
(06/24/2014) Today marks the two-year anniversary of the death of Lonesome George, the world’s last Pinta Island tortoise. The occasion calls attention to the declines of many turtle and tortoise species, which together form one of the most swiftly disappearing groups of animals on the planet.


Broken promises no more? Signs Sabah may finally uphold commitment on wildlife corridors
(06/23/2014) Five years ago an unlikely meeting was held in the Malaysian state of Sabah to discuss how to save wildlife amid worsening forest fragmentation. Although the meeting brought together longtime adversaries—conservationists and the palm oil industry—it appeared at the time to build new relationships and even point toward a way forward for Sabah's embattled forests.


Newly discovered snails at risk of extinction
(06/03/2014) A team of Dutch and Malaysian scientists has recently completed one part of a taxonomic revision of Plectostoma, a genus of tiny land snails in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, according to their article published recently in ZooKeys, it seems that these animals may be going extinct as fast as they are being discovered.




Famous extinct animals



Birds

The Elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus) of Madagascar was hunted to extinction by humans after they arrived on the Indian Ocean island. The bird, which stood over three meters (10 feet) tall and weighed more than 500 kilograms (1100 pounds), disappeared in the 15th or 16th century. Its egg was about 160 times the size of a chicken egg. Reconstructed eggs are commonly sold in markets in Madagascar.

The black or King Island emu (Dromaius ater) of King Island (between Australia and Tasmania) was first discovered by western science in 1802. It was extinct by 1822. Hunting and fires set by visiting sailors caused its demise.

The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) was once found in great numbers on islands off eastern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Ireland and Great Britain but was hunted to extinction by the mid-nineteenth century. The Great Auk was mostly hunted for its down.

The Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) may have one been the world's most abundant bird with a single flock reportedly numbering up to several billion birds. Hunting for sport and food lead to its rapid demise. The last wild Passenger Pigeon was shot by a 14-year-old boy in Ohio in 1900, while the last known individual of the passenger pigeon species, named "Martha" after Martha Washington, died at 1 p.m. on the 1st of September 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden. She was 29. Some scholars have argued that massive passenger pigeon flocks were the result of
ecological imbalance caused by the massive decline in North American human populations following the arrival of Europeans in the 15th and 16th century. The theory holds that the disappearance of indigenous populations gave passenger pigeons an unprecedented opportunity to access resources previously appropriated by humans.

The Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) of Mauritius is perhaps history's most famous extinct bird. Hunting, coupled with widespread forest loss caused by Dutch settlers and their introduced animals killed off the last Dodo in 1681, within 80 years after the arrival of humans. The dodo bird was famously believed to be a key disperser of the Tambalacoque tree, seeds of which were said to require gut passage through the dodo in order to germinate. While this is a nice story, it's controversial.

Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) was the only parrot species native to the eastern United States. Hunting and habitat loss due to forest conversion for agriculture led to its demise. The last wild specimen was killed in Okeechobee County in Florida in 1904, and the last captive bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. The extinction of the Carolina Parakeet resulted in a boom of cocklebur, a common weed that was a favorite food of the bird..

The North American Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis principalis) may or may not be extinct. The last confirmed sighting of North America's largest and most famous woodpecker is hotly debated. To date no conclusive evidence has been put forward to end the controversy. Regardless of its fate, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker's demise was fueled by destruction of its habitat -- hardwood swamps and pine forest in the southern United States -- due logging in the early part of the 20th century.

At least 15 species of Hawaiian honey creepers (various species) have gone extinct since the arrival of Polynesians. Often compared to Darwin's finches for their high degree of adaptation to ecological niches on the Hawaiian islands, honey creepers mostly died out as the result of introduced species, including rats and mosquitoes.

The Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) was hunted to extinction by European colonists who settled in North America. In fact some historians speculate that the first Thanksgiving featured Heath Hen, not turkey. The last heath hen was seen on March 11, 1932. Heath Hens were one of the first bird species that the United States sought to protect: in 1791 New York legislature introduced a bill to protect the species. Nevertheless, the effort eventually failed.

The Moa were giant flightless birds (15 known species) native to New Zealand. Peculiar for their total lack of wings, the largest species, the giant moa (Dinornis robustus and Dinornis novaezelandiae), reached 3.6 m (12 ft) in height and 250 kg (550 lb) in weight. They were the dominant herbivores in the New Zealand forest ecosystem and their disappearance a few hundred years after the arrival of Polynesians resulted in significant ecological change including the extinction of other species. Moa were doomed by forest clearing and hunting by the Polynesian invaders.

Mammals

Steller's Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) was a giant sea mammal that once roamed the Bering Sea in the North Pacific. The sea cow grew up to 7.9 meters (26 ft) long and weighed up to three tons. It was hunted to extinction by sailors and traders. The last known sea cow was seen in 1768.

The Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) of Australia and New Guinea was the largest known carnivorous marsupial of modern times. The species went extinct through most of its range well prior to the arrival of Europeans, but managed to survive on the island of Tasmania until the mid-20th century. Disease, hunting, habitat destruction, and the introduction of dogs fueled its demise. While the last known Thylacine died at the Hobart Zoo in 1936, unconfirmed sightings continue today.

The Barbary Lion (Panthera leo leo) is a subspecies of lion that went extinct in the wild, though some descendants may survive in captivity. It was the largest subspecies of lion and lived in the woodlands in North Africa. Its demise stemmed primarily from hunting and habitat loss.

The Caribbean Monk Seal (Monachus tropicalis) was the only seal ever known to be native to the Caribbean sea and the Gulf of Mexico. It was last spotted in 1952 at Seranilla Bank, Jamaica. The Caribbean Monk Seal was said to lack fear of man, while having an unaggressive and curious nature -- attributes that likely contributed to its demise from habitat loss and hunting.

The lesser Puerto Rican Ground Sloth (Acratocnus odontrigonus) was one of the last remnants of the giant ground sloths that once dominated South America. The species was driven to extinction as recently as the 16th century due to the introduction of rats and pigs by Europeans explorers. Pre-Colombian populations likely diminished the populations of this 50-pound forest dwelling beast by forest clearing and hunting.

The Baiji or Yangtze river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) was declared functionally extinct in 2006 meaning that even if has not yet completely disappeared, its population is so low that it will never recover. The freshwater river dolphin was driven to extinction by pollution in the Yangtze and unsustainable fishing practices. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam and other hydroelectric projects also led to habitat loss.

The Bali tiger (Panthera tigris balica) of the Indonesian island of Bali was the smallest of three sub-species of tiger found in Indonesia. It was driven to extinction by conversion of its forest habitat for agriculture. The last tiger to be shot was in 1925.

The Javan tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) was a tiger found only on the Indonesian island of Java. Highly threatened by hunting and habitat destruction, last minute efforts to create protected areas for the species during the 1950s and 1960s failed: the credible sighting was in 1972.

The Formosan Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa brachyura) was a subspecies of Clouded Leopard endemic to the island of Taiwan. It is now believed to be extinct due to habitat destruction by loggers.

Amphibians

Considered to be one of the most spectacularly colored toads on Earth with its brilliant yellow-orange coloring, the Golden toad is believed to be limited to only a single mountain in Costa Rica, Monteverde. Although always rare, for a few weeks in April every year, hundreds on these brilliant toads gathered in pools in a breeding orgy. However, the toad population dropped sharply since its discovery in 1967 from several thousand gathered in 1987 to just 10 in 1988, none of which were breeding. In 1989 only a single male toad, seeking a mate, was observed. This individual may have been the last Golden toad on Earth; no golden toads have been seen since. The disappearance of the golden toad is of particular significance since its habitat is in a national preserve.

Among the casualties of the current human-induced mass extinction event are the two species of Gastric Brooding Frog from the rainforest of Queensland, Australia: the Northern Gastric Brooding Frog (Rheobatrachus vitellinus) and the Gastric Brooding Frog (Rheobatrachus silus). These two recently discovered species [R. silus was discovered in 1972; R. vitellinus 1984] are presumed extinct as R. silus was last seen in the wild in September 1981 and R. vitellinus was last seen in March 1985. Gastric Brooding Frogs are notable for their reproductive habits. The female swallows her clutch of eggs and the tadpoles hatch in her stomach. The tadpoles secrete chemicals that cause the female to cease feeding and switch off the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach wall. The young are birthed through the mother's mouth once fully developed as froglets. After leaving the mother's mouth, the young frogs are independent. Scientists have been interested in these species' ability to shut down the secretion of digestive acids the implications of which could have an important bearing in the treatment of people who suffer from gastric ulcers.







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