The Earth has seen no less than five great extinction events. The dinosaurs, sure – but roughly 180 million years prior, the cataclysmically-named ‘The Great Dying’ saw 90% of life on our planet just disaclonedppear. The culprit? The extreme warming of the planet.
So that begs the question, are we truly on the cusp of the sixth extinction event? The environmental scientists behind recent research say, “Estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity over the last few centuries, indicating that a sixth mass extinction is already underway.”
A dismal realization such as this should send everyone into shock mode. Yet, the defiant among us would rather risk it all than believe it could happen. Studies show even the tiniest increment of additional warmth introduced to the planet would see more species join the extinction list.
Slowing the rate of climate change “is critical for the future of many species”, Scholes and Pörtner of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warn. Making vehicles and buildings more energy efficient and increasing the use of alternative energies are just some of the things we can do. But fully engaging ourselves in how to best help species adapt to the oncoming storm will also be an indispensable resource going forward.
Another safeguard against the possible scenario of a sixth extinction event is banking the DNA of certain creatures who are already at risk. This is precisely what the ‘Frozen Zoo’ north of San Diego is doing. Vast banks of animal cells (in two separate facilities, just to be safe) sit frozen. It’s essentially a modern-day ark containing over a thousand individual species’ DNA so far.
Dr. Oliver Ryder, who works at the facility pleads that no one cry Jurassic Park just yet. “It’s not a time capsule. It is used”. The cellular ‘zoo’ serves as a museum or catalog of what we have on Earth now and extinct animals. With a microscope, it’s the Met. But its primary use is for research. The kind of research we need to investigate what can be done to ensure species’ survival on a critical level.
Quagga are an extinct subspecies of plains zebra that lived in South Africa until the 19th century. Its name was derived from its call, which sounded like “kwa-ha-ha” This is the only known photo of this species.
The golden toad was once abundant in a small region of Costa Rica. The toad’s main habitat was on a cold, wet ridge called Brillante – where 1500 of them had been breeding since 1972. However, the last documented mating episode occurred in April of 1987, and now they are all gone.
Tasmanian tigers were the largest known carnivorous marsupial of modern times, but became extinct in the 20th century. This shy animal was one of only two marsupials to have a pouch in both sexes (the other being the water opossum). They were native to Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea.
Koala Lemurs are an extinct genus belonging to the family Megaladapidae. They once inhabited the island of Madagascar, but have been extinct for 500 years due to habitat fragmentation and deforestation.
Steller’s Sea Cow
Stellar’s sea cow lived in coastal regions of the north Pacific ocean, in shallow areas where it fed on reeds. This tame mammal became extinct in 1768 after being hunted for its meat, fat, and skin.
Syrian Wild Ass
The Syrian wild ass was known to be impossible to tame and was compared to a thoroughbred horse for its beauty and strength. They ranged across present-day Syria, Palestine, Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq – with the last known wild specimen being fatally shot in 1927.
Reaching a size of up to 880 pounds, the elephant bird was one of the world’s largest birds until it went extinct 1,000 years ago. It was not named for being the size of an elephant, but being big enough to carry off a baby one.
In the 17th century, the Caucasian wisent still populated a large area of the Caucasus Mountains of Eastern Europe. But encroaching humans and poachers would bring about their downfall. By 1927, the last two Caucasian wisents were gone.
With a name derived from the Ancient Greek word for ‘terrible beast,’ deinotherium was a large prehistoric relative of modern-day elephants that survived until the Early Pleistocene. It resembled modern-day elephants, except with downward curving tusks attached to the lower jaw.
Caribbean Monk Seal
The Caribbean monk seal was a species native to the Caribbean that is now gone. Over-hunting of the seals for oil, and over-fishing of their food sources were key to their demise, and they were officially deemed extinct in 1994.
The Russian tracker was a breed of domestic mountain dog with an exceptional intellect who’s closest surviving descendant is the Golden Retriever. It was so wise and capable (legend says) that it could keep itself and its flock alive and well for months on end without human help.
Delcourts Giant Gecko
Delcourt’s giant gecko was the largest of all known geckos – with a snout-to-vent length of 14.6 inches and an overall length of at least 23.6 inches. It was likely endemic to New Zealand and was also called kawekaweau. The only documented report of anyone ever seeing one of these animals alive was by a Māori chief in 1870. He killed it.
The gigantic and majestic Irish elk were one of the largest deer ever to walk the Earth. The most recent remains of the species have been carbon dated to about 7,700 years ago in Siberia.
Desert Rat Kangaroo
This small, hopping marsupial from the desert regions of Central Australia was discovered in the early 1840s – and then wasn’t recorded for the next 90 years. The species was then rediscovered in 1931, but that last colony died out too; a 2011 reported sighting of a desert rat kangaroo nest yielded no usable DNA.
An extinct genus of giraffid that ranged throughout Africa to the Indian subcontinent, sivatherium giganteum is the largest giraffid known, and also possibly the largest ruminant of all time. Remains have been recovered from the Himalayan foothills, dating around 1,000,000 B.C.
Opabinia were a stem group arthropod found in the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale Lagerstätte of British Columbia, Canada. The head shows unusual features: five eyes, a mouth under the head and facing backwards, and a proboscis that probably passed food to the mouth.
The Josephoartigasia Monesi is a giant rodent fossil, lived between four and two million years ago in present-day Uruguay. It is considered the largest known rodent at a length of about 3 feet and a height of about five feet. The animal weighed about a ton and was vegetarian.
The toolache wallaby lived in southeastern Australia and southwestern Victoria. Sociable creatures, they lived in groups. The different colors of the animal consisted of uniquely textured furs that changed seasonally (or varied depending on the individual).
The Jamaican giant galliwasp was a species of lizard in the Anguidae family. It was endemic to Jamaica and was last recorded in 1840. It is now thought to be extinct, as it was probably exterminated by mongooses.
Japanese Honshū Wolf
The Japanese Honshū wolf is an extinct subspecies of the gray wolf; once endemic to the islands of Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū. The last valid specimens were recorded in 1905 at Higashi-Yoshino village – though there have been hoaxes that only turned out to be feral dogs.
The Great Auk was a flightless bird, and likely the original ‘penguin.’ The last pair seen alive in the world was caught and throttled on the island of Eldey, Iceland, in 1844.
Camelops is an extinct genus of a camel that once roamed western North America, where it disappeared at the end of the Pleistocene about 10,000 years ago. Camelops’ extinction was part of a larger North American die-off in which native horses, mastodons, and other camelids also died out – possibly from global climate change and hunting by the Clovis people.
The cute lesser bilby lived in the deserts of Central Australia and has thought to be extinct since the 1960s. Reaching the size of a young rabbit, this mammal had a very long tail – measuring approximately 70% of its total head and body length.
Pentecopterous is an extinct genus of eurypterid (or “sea scorpion”) known from the Middle Ordovician period, as early as 467.3 million years ago. They were also one of the largest arthropods ever recorded, at a length of six feet.
Pinta Island Tortoise
Most of the Pinta Island tortoises had been wiped out of Ecuador due to hunting by the end of the 19th century – and assumed to be extinct. That is until a single male was discovered on the island in 1971. Efforts were made to mate the tortoise, named Lonesome George, with other species but no viable eggs were produced. Lonesome George died on June 24th, 2012.
Saint Lucia Rice Rat
The Saint Lucia giant rice rat lived on the island of Saint Lucia in the eastern Caribbean. It was the size of a small cat, with slender paws. It probably became extinct in the latter half of the nineteenth century, with the last record dating from 1881.
Pyrenean ibex were natives of the Iberian Peninsula and became extinct in January of 2000. However, science has been attempting to clone them. A living specimen was born in 2003, but it died several minutes later due to a lung defect.
Sea minks lived on the eastern coast of North America and have been extinct since 1903. Fur traders who hunted it gave the sea mink various names, including water marten, red otter, and fisher cat. (Photo of closely related American Mink.)
The wooly rhinoceros was common throughout Europe and northern Asia during the Pleistocene epoch and survived the last glacial period. They co-existed with woolly mammoths, and the oldest known fossil was discovered on the Tibetan Plateau in 2011.
Short Faced Kangaroo
The short-faced kangaroo (procoptodon) was a genus living in Australia during the Pleistocene epoch. They were the largest-known kangaroo that ever existed, standing at approximately six and a half feet and weighing about 500 lbs.
Puerto Rican Hutia
The Puerto-Rican hutia is an extinct species of rodent once found in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. They were a vital food source for the Amerindians for many years. Christopher Columbus and his crew are believed to have eaten the species upon their arrival, but they were extinct by the 19th or early 20th century. (Photo is of very closely related living species.)
Rocky Mountain Locusts
Rocky Mountain locusts ranged through the western United States and some portions of Canada until the end of the 19th century. There was a swarm recorded in 1875 that consisted of over 12 billion of them and covering an area roughly the size of California – which is surprising because the last sighting of a live locust was just 27 years later, in 1902.
Large Sloth Lemur
The large sloth lemur lived in Madagascar and is thought to have gone extinct around 500 years ago. Their slow locomotion likely made them an easy target for their human predators, who would consume them for food, and use the bones for tools.
The last known Carolina parakeet perished in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918, and the species was declared extinct in 1939. Carolina parakeets were probably poisonous— cats apparently died from eating them.
These small, heat-tolerant pupfish were endemic to the outflows of hot springs in California’s Mojave Desert. Around since the ice age, habitat modifications and the introduction of non-native species led to its extinction in about 1970. The Tecopa pupfish adapted to almost anything nature threw at it – except man.