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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



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.


Extinction rates are 1,000x the background rate, but it's not all gloomy
(05/29/2014) Current extinction rates are at the high end of past predictions, according to a new paper published today in Science, however conservation efforts combined with new technologies could make a big difference. New research led by Stuart Pimm of Duke University argues that humans have pushed the current extinction rate to 1,000 times the historical rate.


The quiet zoo revolution
(05/19/2014) A quiet zoo revolution has also been occurring over the past twenty-five years. Rather than just stand by the sidelines as species vanish in the wild, many zoos have begun funding on-the-ground conservation efforts. This revolution signals a widening realization by zoos of the positive—and wholly unique—role they could play in combating global mass extinction. But are zoos doing enough?


Scientists uncover new marine mammal genus, represented by single endangered species
(05/14/2014) This is the story of three seals: the Caribbean, the Hawaiian, and the Mediterranean monk seals. Once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the Caribbean monk seal was a hugely abundant marine mammal found across the Caribbean, and even recorded by Christopher Columbus during his second voyage, whose men killed several for food.


Long lives, big impacts: human life expectancy linked to extinctions
(04/15/2014) Since the arrival of Homo sapiens, other species have been going extinct at an unprecedented rate. Most scientists now agree that extinction rates are between 100 and 1000 times greater than before humans existed. Working out what is driving these extinctions is fiendishly complicated, but a new study suggests that human life expectancy may be partly to blame.


Giant ibis, little dodo, and the kakapo: meet the 100 weirdest and most endangered birds
(04/10/2014) The comic dodo, the stately great auk, the passenger pigeon blotting out the skies: human kind has wiped out nearly 200 species of birds in the last five hundred years. Now, if we don't act soon we'll add many new ones to the list: birds such as the giant ibis, the plains-wanderer, and the crow honeyeater. And these are just a few of the species that appear today on the long-awaited EDGE list.


Extinction crisis: rising sea levels will submerge thousands of islands
(04/08/2014) Sea levels are rising at the highest rate in thousands of years, putting at risk low-lying islands around the world. In a new study published in Nature Conservation, researchers found that projected rises in sea level stand to swamp more than 10,000 islands, displacing human communities and wiping many unique species off the face of the earth.


Apocalypse now? Climate change already damaging agriculture, acidifying seas, and worsening extreme weather
(03/31/2014) It's not just melting glaciers and bizarrely-early Springs anymore; climate change is impacting every facet of human civilization from our ability to grow enough crops to our ability to get along with each other, according to a new 2,300-page report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The massive report states definitively that climate change is already affecting human societies on every continent.


Blame humans: new research proves people killed off New Zealand's giant birds
(03/17/2014) Moas were a diverse group of flightless birds that ruled over New Zealand up to the arrival of humans, the biggest of these mega-birds stood around 3.5 meters (12 feet) with outstretched neck. While the whole moa family—comprised of nine species—vanished shortly after the arrival of people on New Zealand in the 13th Century, scientists have long debated why the big birds went extinct. Some theories contend that the birds were already in decline due to environmental changes or volcanic activity before humans first stepped on New Zealand's beaches. But a study released today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) finds no evidence of said decline, instead pointing the finger squarely at us.


Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record – book review
(03/04/2014) Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record reaches into your imagination and draws you closer to the final days of a variety of extinct animals on Earth. Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record is filled with poignant and powerful first-hand accounts, photographic records, and illustrations.


The lemur end-game: scientists propose ambitious plan to save the world's most imperiled mammal family
(02/20/2014) Due to the wonderful idiosyncrasies of evolution, there is one country on Earth that houses 20 percent of the world's primates. More astounding still, every single one of these primates—an entire distinct family in fact—are found no-where else. The country is, of course, Madagascar and the primates in question are, of course, lemurs. But the far-flung island of Madagascar, once a safe haven for wild evolutionary experiments, has become an ecological nightmare. Overpopulation, deep poverty, political instability, slash-and-burn agriculture, illegal logging for lucrative woods, and a booming bushmeat trade has placed 94 percent of the world's lemurs under threat of extinction, making this the most imperiled mammal group on the planet. But, in order to stem a rapid march toward extinction, conservationists today publicized an emergency three year plan to safeguard 30 important lemur forests in the journal Science.


On edge of extinction, could drones and technology save the Little Dodo?
(02/10/2014) Almost nothing is known about the little dodo, a large, archaic, pigeon-like bird found only on the islands of Samoa. Worse still, this truly bizarre bird is on the verge of extinction, following the fate of its much more famous relative, the dodo bird. Recently, conservationists estimated that fewer than 200 survived on the island and maybe far fewer; frustratingly, sightings of the bird have been almost non-existent in recent years. But conservation efforts were buoyed this December when researchers stumbled on a juvenile little dodo hanging out in a tree. Not only was this an important sighting of a nearly-extinct species, but even more so it proved the species is still successfully breeding. In other words: there is still time to save the species from extinction so long as conservationists are able to raise the funds needed.


Next big idea in forest conservation? Connecting forest fragments
(01/31/2014) Dr. Stuart Pimm is an expert in extinctions: why they happen, how fast they happen, and how they can be prevented. Reconnecting forest fragments and avoiding fragmentation, according to Pimm, are among the most crucial things we can do to conserve global biodiversity. His organization SavingSpecies identifies areas at-risk for extinctions and helps local organizations fundraise so they can protect and restore habitats and safeguard biodiversity.


Predator appreciation: how saving lions, tigers, and polar bears could rescue ourselves
(01/29/2014) In the new book, In Predatory Light: Lions and Tigers and Polar Bears, authors Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Sy Montgomery, and John Houston, and photographers Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson share with us an impassioned and detailed appeal to appreciate three of the world's biggest predators: lions, tigers, and polar bears. Through lengthy discussions, combining themes from scientific conservation to local community folklore, In Predatory Light takes us step by step deeper into the wild world of these awe-inspiring carnivores and their varied plight as they facedown extinction.




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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