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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



Last ditch: Mexico finally gets serious about saving the vaquita
(03/04/2015) There are likely less than 100 vaquita on the planet. Found only in the northern pocket of the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, the vaquita is a tiny, shy porpoise that has been brought to the very edge of extinction due to drowning in gillnets used for shrimping. But after years of stalling, Mexico now appears to be making a final effort to save the world's most endangered cetacean.


Biodiversity may reduce the threat of disease
(02/19/2015) Biodiversity level changes can have consequences for species and habitats around the world. A new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, reaffirms previous findings that higher diversity in ecological communities may lead to reduced disease threat.


Scientists, NGOs race to save 'Millennium Trees'
(02/12/2015) In a tiny area of an isolated archipelago in the southwest Pacific lives a unique tree species on the precipice of extinction. Recent research has shown it is declining dramatically, and mature individuals may be completely gone in 100 years. In response, environmental organizations and scientists are coming together to try and save New Caledonia's Millennium Trees.


Ocean's 15: meet the species that have vanished forever from our seas
(01/15/2015) In the last 500 years, the oceans have suffered far fewer extinctions than on land—at least that we know of. According to a recent study in Science, 15 animals are known to have vanished forever from the oceans while terrestrial ecosystems have seen 514 extinctions. The researchers, however, warn that the number of marine extinctions could rise rapidly as the oceans are industrialized.


Empty seas? Scientists warn of an industrialized ocean
(01/15/2015) This is obvious, but still important: humans are not a marine species. Even as we have colonized most of our planet's terrestrial landscapes, we have not yet colonized the oceans. And for most of our history, we have impacted them only on the periphery. A new review in Science finds that this has saved marine species and ecosystems from large-scale damage—that is, until the last couple centuries.


Time for a checkup: researchers examine the health of lowland tapirs
(01/07/2015) The Brazilian tapir may get a bad rap in Brazil, where referring to someone as a 'tapir' essentially equates to calling them an 'ass,' but history has shown that this species is deserving of a lot more respect. These hardy 'living fossils' have survived multiple extinction events since the Eocene, yet their ability to survive the ongoing Anthopocene extinction remains uncertain.


Scientists rediscover Critically Endangered streamside frog in Costa Rica
(12/26/2014) In the past 20 years, amphibian species around the world have experienced rapid decline due to climate change, disease, invasive species, habitat loss and degradation. Populations have decreased by approximately 40 percent with nearly 200 species thought to have gone extinct since 1980. However, despite these discouraging statistics, new research efforts are turning up lost populations of some vanished frogs.


Puerto Rico's only native toad bounces back from edge of extinction
(12/19/2014) Once common on the islands of Puerto Rico and Virgin Gorda, the Puerto Rican crested toad declined by more than 80 percent over the past decade, leaving behind just some 200 individuals in the wild. But researchers have turned their fate around. Since 1992, they have successfully bred in captivity and re-introduced to the wild more than 300,000 of these threatened toads.


Saving the world's rarest primate: can it be done?
(12/17/2014) Endemic to China’s southernmost province of Hainan, only around 30 Hainan gibbons survive today. Rapid island-wide deforestation and consequential loss of habitat, uncontrolled hunting, and failed captive breeding attempts have pushed this ape towards the precipice of becoming the first primate species to go extinct in the modern world. Will a multi-stakeholder conservation strategy be able to save it?


Gibbon species pushed towards extinction as island loses its trees
(12/15/2014) Only about 30 Hainan gibbons currently inhabit our world and all of them are confined to the 2,100-hectare Bawangling National Nature Reserve on the western part of Hainan Island. Endemic to this island, these gibbons primarily inhabited the lowland broadleaf and semi-deciduous monsoon forests that today are almost entirely deforested.


To collect or not to collect? Experts debate the need for specimens
(12/10/2014) In 1912, a group of intrepid explorers led by Rollo and Ida Beck, widely acknowledged to be the foremost marine bird collectors of their time, embarked on a most remarkable effort to catalogue South America's oceanic birds. Museums of the day held opportunistically collected specimens from scattered sources, but rarely did these include ocean-bound birds that spent little time near the coast.


Is captive breeding the final resort for the Sumatran rhino?
(12/03/2014) Nearing extinction, the Sumatran rhino is running out of options. A native of Indonesia and Malaysia, the Sumatran rhino has declined in the past 30 years from an estimated 800 individuals to no more than 75 remaining today. So far there have been three ad hoc meetings held in 1984, 1993, and 2013, each attempting to develop policies that would potentially save this critical species.


Egyptian art helps chart past extinctions of big mammals
(12/01/2014) Life in modern Egypt clings to the Nile River. This crowded green strip within the desert supports more than 2,300 people per square kilometer (6,000 per square mile). But 6,000 years ago, all of Egypt was green and vibrant, teeming with life much like the current Serengeti. Over time, this rich ecosystem fell apart.


Meet the world's rarest chameleon: Chapman's pygmy
(11/25/2014) In just two forest patches may dwell a tiny, little-known chameleon that researchers have dubbed the world's most endangered. Chapman's pygmy chameleon from Malawi hasn't been seen in 16 years. In that time, its habitat has been whittled down to an area about the size of just 100 American football fields.


Gone for good: world's largest earwig declared extinct
(11/19/2014) The world has lost a giant: this week the IUCN Red List officially declared St. Helena giant earwig extinct. While its length of 80 millimeters (3.1 inches) may not seem like much, it's massive for an earwig and impressive for an insect. Only found on the island of St. Helena in the remote southern Atlantic, experts believe the St. Helena giant earwig was pushed to extinction by habitat destruction.


'Guns kill trees too': overhunting raises extinction threat for trees
(11/12/2014) A new paper confirms what ecologists have long feared: hunting birds and mammals drastically raises the risk of extinction for tropical trees. Following the long-lifespan of a single canopy tree, Miliusa horsfieldii, researchers discovered that overhunting of animals could increase the chances of extinction for the species fourteen times over a century, from 0.5 percent to seven percent.


It only took 2,500 people to kill off the world's biggest birds
(11/10/2014) The first settlers of New Zealand killed off nine species of giant birds, known as moas, with a population no bigger than a few thousand people, according to new research published in Nature Communications. The biggest moas stood up to 3.6 meters (12 feet) tall, making these mega-birds the largest animals in the country and contenders for the biggest birds ever.


Perched on the precipice: India's vultures threatened by E.U. sale of killer drug
(11/05/2014) Poisoned by cattle carcasses treated with Diclofenac, India’s vultures died by the millions in the 1990s. A captive breeding program is helping to save the once-ubiquitous birds, but the very drug that drove India’s vultures to the precipice of extinction has been given a green light in Italy and Spain.


Pet trade likely responsible for killer salamander fungus
(10/30/2014) As if amphibians weren't facing enough—a killer fungal disease, habitat destruction, pollution, and global warming—now scientists say that a second fungal disease could spell disaster for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of species. A new paper finds that this disease has the potential to wipe out salamanders and newts across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Americas.


The Search for Lost Frogs: one of conservation's most exciting expeditions comes to life in new book
(10/30/2014) One of the most exciting conservation initiatives in recent years was the Search for Lost Frogs in 2010. The brainchild of scientist, photographer, and frog-lover, Robin Moore, the initiative brought a sense of hope—and excitement—to a whole group of animals often ignored by the global public—and media outlets. Now, Moore has written a fascinating account of the expedition: In Search of Lost Frogs.




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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