Top 10 Most Beautiful Extinct Animals
In the last ten thousand years, humanity's impact on the environment has caused the extinction of many beautiful animals. This article will provide pictures and facts for ten extinct creatures that are likely to captivate our attention.
There have been two eras of anthropogenic extinction in modern times. Around ten thousand years ago, the early Holocene extinction event was caused by retreating ice, which adversely affected the habitats of a number of animals. However, humans also contributed by hunting several large species (megafauna).
The second era coincides with the human age of exploration and colonization that began around 500 years ago. Numerous species were unprepared for the introduction of humans and farm animals to their environments, leading to their extinction through hunting or habitat destruction.
While many smaller species have died out, it is the larger species that invoke our imagination most prolifically. For this list of extinct animals, the approximate extinction dates are given in brackets.
10. Irish Elk (5,200 B.C.)
Megaloceros giganteus - From Ireland to Siberia, Irish Elk populated much of northern Europe at the end of the last glacial period. As they have little in common with extant elk species, they are more precisely known as `giant deer'. They could grow up to 7 feet tall at the shoulder, and weigh up to 700 kg. Their antlers were the largest of any deer species, reaching 12 feet in width. It is likely that the sizable antlers evolved through sexual selection, as males would have used them to intimidate rivals, and impress females.
Irish Elk evolved around 400,000 years ago, and died out approximately 5,000 years ago. It is likely that hunting by humans contributed to their extinction. However, the retreating ice would have allowed different plants to flourish, which could have led to a lack of dietary minerals. In particular, a good supply of calcium was needed to grow the animal's massive antlers.
9. Quagga (1883)
Equus quagga quagga - This striking half zebra, half horse, creature is actually a subspecies of zebra that diverged around 200,000 years ago, and became extinct in the 19th century. Quagga lived in South Africa and got their name from the sound they make (onomatopoeic). It was hunted to extinction in 1883 to preserve the land for agricultural animals, and for their meat and hides.
8. Japanese Honshu Wolf (1905)
Canis lupus hodophilax - The Honshu wolf lived on the Japanese islands of Shikoku, Hyushu and Honshu. It was the smallest species of wolf in the canis lupus family, growing to about 3 feet in length, and 12 inches at the shoulder. After rabies was introduced to the Honshu wolf population in 1732 (either deliberately or through domesticated dogs), the disease killed off a large number of animals, and made them more aggressive towards humans. Given their increased contact with humans following the deforestation of their natural habitat, their aggression led them being prolifically hunted until their extinction in 1905.
7. Great Auk (1852)
Pinguinus impennis - The Great Auk was a flightless bird that resembled a present day penguin. Like the penguin, it was a powerful swimmer, stored fat for warmth, nested in dense colonies and mated for life, however, it also had a heavy hooked beak. It could grow to almost 3 feet in height and lived in the north Atlantic ocean until its extinction in the 19th century. Beginning in the 16th century, Europeans hunted the Great Auk to acquire its treasured down feathers for pillows. The bird was later hunted in North America for fishing bait, and commonly endured atrocities such as being skinned and burned alive for feathers and food. After it became rare, museums and collectors desired their own (dead) specimens, finally forcing the Great Auk to extinction.
6. Pinta Island Tortoise (2012)
Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii - The Pinta Island tortoise was a subspecies of giant tortoise that lived on the Galapagos Islands. It was hunted prolifically for food in the 19th century, and its habitat was destroyed in the 1950s when goats were brought to the island. Efforts were made to conserve the animal, but by 1971 only one remained: the famous Lonesome George. Despite attempts to mate other tortoises with George, none of the eggs hatched, and he died in 2012, the last of his kind.
5. Steller's Sea Cow (1768)
Hydrodamalis gigas - Steller's Sea Cow was a huge, plant-eating, sea mammal similar to the manatee in appearance. However, it could grow up to 9 meters long (30 feet). It was discovered by Georg Wilhelm Steller, and within three decades was hunted to extinction by Europeans. This owed to its complete tameness, and its presence in shallow waters where it would feed on reeds. It lived in coastal regions of the north Pacific ocean, and became extinct in 1768 after being hunted for food, fat for oil lamps, and skin to line boats. These sailors and hunters followed Steller's route to find the animal.
4. Smilodon (10,000 B.C.)
Smilodon - The Smilodon (saber-toothed cat) lived in North and South America at the end of the last glacial period, though it evolved as a separate species around 2.5 million years ago. The largest subspecies, smilodon populator, could reach 400 kg in weight, 3 meters in length, and 1.4 meters tall at the shoulder. Despite being called a saber-toothed tiger, it was actually built more like a bear, with short powerful limbs that were not designed for speed. Its notable canines could reach 30 cm (1 foot) in length, but were fragile and mainly used for biting into soft neck tissue after its prey had been subdued. It could open its jaws 120 degrees, but had a relatively weak bite.
The Smilodon mainly hunted larger prey such as bison, deer and small mammoths, though it was also a scavenger, suggesting it was a social animal. It would have found smaller, nimbler prey more difficult, and this may have contributed to its demise. However, the Smilodon's extinction coincides with the arrival of humans who were known to have hunted many native species.
3. Woolly Mammoth (2,000 B.C.)
Mammuthus primigenius - The Woolly Mammoth inhabited much of the arctic tundra regions of the northern hemisphere in the early Holocene period. These massive creatures could reach 11 feet in height and weigh 6 tonnes, which is about the same as African elephants, though their closest relative is the Asian elephant. Unlike the elephant, it was covered in brown, black and ginger fur. It also had a shortened tail to minimize frostbite.
The Woolly Mammoth had long tusks for fighting and foraging, and these were sought after by humans. They were hunted for food as well, but it's likely that their extinction was expedited by climate change at the end of the last glacial period. The retreating ice saw most of their habitat disappear, reducing their population enough for humans to wipe them out through hunting. While most died around 10,000 years ago, small populations continued in remote areas up until 4,000 years ago.
2. Moa (1400)
Dinornithiformes - The moa was a huge species of flightless bird native to New Zealand. They could grow to almost 4 meters in height (12 feet) and weigh 230 kg. Despite their incredible height, the bird's vertebrae suggest they spent much of their time with their necks pointed forward. These long necks likely produced low-pitched, resonant calling sounds. Moa were traditionally hunted by Haast's eagle, though this changed when the Mãori people arrived in 1300 A.D. In less than a century, hunting by humans drove them to extinction, which in turn saw the extinction of the reliant Haast's eagle.
1. Tasmanian Tiger (1936)
Thylacine - The Tasmanian tiger was the largest carnivorous marsupial of the modern era, evolving around 4 million years ago. It became extinct in the 1930s due to excessive hunting by farmers who blamed it for killing sheep and poultry. Other factors were a loss of habitat to agriculture, disease, and the introduction of dogs. This remarkable creature lived in Tasmania, Australia and New Guinea, and could grow to almost 2 meters in length from head to tail.
The Tasmanian tiger was top of the food chain (apex predator), and nocturnally ambushed prey including kangaroos, wallabies, possums, birds and small mammals. Its jaws could open 120 degrees, and its stomach could distend to consume large quantities of food, meaning it could survive in sparsely populated areas. It was an unusual marsupial because both sexes had a pouch; the male using it to protect its genitals when running through the brush.
Lest We Forget...
Many other remarkable creatures were not included in this list. Some of these are the Pied Raven, Caspian Tiger, Javan Tiger, Yangtze River Dolphin, Cave Lion, Zanzibar Leopard, Toolache Wallaby, and of course, the Dodo.
It is tragic that humanity has caused the extinction of so many beautiful animals, and shameful that this has continued until the present day. Even when the cost of excessive hunting is known, greed can still invoke the darker nature of our species.
I hope you enjoyed this list of beautiful extinct animals. May our knowledge of these remarkable beasts preserve them in our memories and revive them in our imaginations.