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The 15 Most Beautiful Extinct Animals to Ever Live

Thomas is an avid student of evolutionary history with a deep fondness for the natural world.

Humans have contributed to the extinction of many beautiful animals.

Humans have contributed to the extinction of many beautiful animals.

In the past 10,000 years, humanity's impact on the environment has caused the extinction of many beautiful animals. This article will provide pictures and facts for fifteen extinct creatures that are likely to captivate your attention.

There have been two main eras of anthropogenic (man-made) extinction in modern times, which together form the ongoing "Anthropocene" mass extinction event. In the first, around 10,000 years ago, retreating ice following the end of the last glacial period adversely affected the habitats of several species that subsequently went extinct. However, humans also contributed by over-hunting several larger species (megafauna).

The second era has coincided with the age of human exploration, colonization, and industrialization 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. The industrialization of human society accelerated the process of habitat destruction, either directly (e.g., toxic waste) or indirectly (e.g., climate change).

While many smaller species have died out, it is the larger species that tend to invoke our imaginations. For this list of extinct animals, the approximate extinction dates are given in parentheses.

1. Smilodon (10,000 B.C.)

The Smilodon (saber-toothed cat) lived in North and South America at the end of the last glacial period (115,000 – 11,700 years ago), although it had existed as a distinct species for about 2.5 million years. The largest subspecies, Smilodon populator, could reach 400 kg in weight, three meters in length, and 1.4 meters tall at the shoulder.

Despite being called a saber-toothed tiger, Smilodon was actually built more like a bear, with short, powerful limbs that were not designed for speed. Its notable canines could reach 30 cm (one 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. Smilodon hunted megafauna (bison, deer, and small mammoths), but it was also a scavenger, which might suggest it was a social animal.

This painting is considered to be an accurate restoration of Smilodon.

This painting is considered to be an accurate restoration of Smilodon.

Why Did They Go Extinct?

Smilodon's extinction coincided with the arrival of humans who were known to have hunted many native species. This may have included Smilodon, but certainly included its megafauna prey, possibly leading to a scarcity of food. With its stocky build, Smilodon would have found smaller, nimbler prey more difficult, and this may have contributed to its demise. Another factor was climate change (retreating ice), which destroyed its habitat and that of its prey.

2. Irish Elk (5,700 B.C.)

From Ireland to Siberia, Irish Elk (Megaloceros giganteus) 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 seven feet tall at the shoulder and weigh up to 700 kg. Their antlers were the largest of any deer species, reaching 14 feet in width. It is likely that the sizable antlers evolved through sexual selection, as males used them to intimidate rivals and impress females.

A model of an Irish Elk.

A model of an Irish Elk.

Why Did They Go Extinct?

Irish Elk evolved around 400,000 years ago and died out approximately 7,700 years ago. It is likely that hunting contributed to their extinction. However, retreating ice 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.

3. Woolly Mammoth (2,000 B.C.)

The Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) inhabited much of the arctic tundra regions of the northern hemisphere in the early Holocene period (just after the last glacial period, 11,700 years ago). These massive creatures could reach 11 feet in height and weigh six tonnes, which is about the same size as African elephants, although their closest relative is the Asian elephant. Unlike elephants, mammoths were covered in brown, black, and ginger fur. They also had shorter tails to minimize frostbite.

A model of the majestic Woolly Mammoth.

A model of the majestic Woolly Mammoth.

Why Did They Go Extinct?

The Woolly Mammoth had long tusks for fighting and foraging, and these were sought after by humans. They were also hunted for food, however, their extinction was most likely expedited by climate change at the end of the last glacial period. The retreating ice caused most of their habitat to 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 until 4,000 years ago.

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4. Moa (1400)

The Moa (Dinornithiformes) was a huge species of flightless bird native to New Zealand. They could grow to almost four 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.

A reconstruction of a moa hunt.

A reconstruction of a moa hunt.

Why Did They Go Extinct?

DNA testing in 2014 proved that humans were the main cause of the Moa's demise. Archeological evidence also suggests that humans ate these birds regardless of their age, which would, of course, have made it very difficult for them to reproduce.

5. Steller's Sea Cow (1768)

Steller's Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) was a huge, plant-eating, sea mammal similar to the manatee in appearance. However, it could grow up to nine meters long (30 feet). It was discovered by Georg Wilhelm Steller, and within three decades was hunted to extinction by Europeans, who followed Steller's route.

A Steller's Sea Cow, relative in size to a human. Image adapted from:

A Steller's Sea Cow, relative in size to a human. Image adapted from:

Why Did They Go Extinct?

This tame animal was easy to hunt because of 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 its meat, its fat for oil lamps, and its skin for boat liners.

6. Great Auk (1852)

The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) was a flightless bird that lived in the North Atlantic ocean and 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, the Great Auk also had a heavy hooked beak and it could grow to almost three feet in height.

The Great Auk had a similar appearance to present day penguins.

The Great Auk had a similar appearance to present day penguins.

Why Did They Go Extinct?

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. Great Auks were easy to catch because they were flightless. After the species became rare, museums and collectors desired their own (dead) specimens, finally forcing the bird to extinction in 1852.

In the 1770s, the British Parliament passed one of the earliest environmental protection laws in history that prohibited the killing of the Auks in Great Britain, but it was already too late.

7. Atlas Bear (1870)

The Atlas bear (Ursus arctos crowtheri) is an extinct bear subspecies from North Africa. Zoologists classified it as a separate species after it was brought to the public's attention by an English serviceman named Crowther in 1840. Although its fur was brownish-black, the Atlas bear was categorized as a brown bear because it was stockier and sturdier than the American black bear. However, its genetic make-up is largely unique when compared to extant bears. It was Africa's only native bear that survived into modern times.

A Roman mosaic that likely depicts an Atlas bear.

A Roman mosaic that likely depicts an Atlas bear.

Why Did They Become Extinct?

As seen in the mosaic above, the Romans were familiar with the Atlas bear and they used the beast in gladiatorial combat, which probably sparked an initial decline in their numbers. The Atlas bear eventually became extinct sometime in the late nineteenth century. Like many others on this list, environmental changes and a loss of habitat likely contributed to their decline. However, over-hunting by local tribes and the introduction of modern-day firearms—which made it easier to kill the bears—probably contributed most to their demise.

8. Quagga (1883)

The Quagga (Equus quagga quagga) is a striking half zebra, half horse creature that is actually a subspecies of zebra. It diverged from zebras to become a separate species 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).

A Quagga photographed in London Zoo in 1870.

A Quagga photographed in London Zoo in 1870.

Why Did They Go Extinct?

Quagga were hunted to extinction in 1883 for their meat and hides and to use their habitat for agricultural animals. Indeed, Quagga were seen by farmers who settled in the region as competitors to their sheep, goats, and other livestock. Furthermore, many people used the term "Quagga" to describe zebras in general, so their decline was not noticed until it was too late. The Quagga Project, started in 1987, is an attempt to bring them back from extinction.

9. Japanese Honshu Wolf (1905)

The Honshu wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax) lived on the Japanese islands of Shikoku, Kyushu, and Honshu. It was the smallest species of wolf in the Canis lupus family, growing to about three feet in length and 12 inches at the shoulder.

In the Shinto belief (the traditional religion of Japan), the ōkami ("wolf") is regarded as a messenger of the kami spirits and offers protection against crop raiders such as the wild boar and deer. There are an estimated 20 Shinto wolf shrines on Honshu alone.

A stuffed Honshu wolf at the Ueno zoo.

A stuffed Honshu wolf at the Ueno zoo.

Why Did They Go Extinct?

When 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 to them being prolifically hunted until their extinction in 1905.

10. Tasmanian Tiger (1936)

The Tasmanian tiger (Thylacine) was the largest carnivorous marsupial of the modern era, evolving around 4 million years ago. This remarkable creature lived in Tasmania, Australia, and New Guinea and could grow to almost two meters in length from head to tail.

The last Tasmanian tiger, photographed in captivity in 1933. It died in 1936 after being locked out of its enclosure during a heat wave.

The last Tasmanian tiger, photographed in captivity in 1933. It died in 1936 after being locked out of its enclosure during a heat wave.

The Tasmanian tiger was at the 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, with the male using it to protect its genitals when running through the brush.

Why Did They Go Extinct?

The Tasmanian tiger became extinct in the 1930s due to excessive hunting by farmers who viewed it as a pest and blamed it for killing sheep and poultry, although it's possible that these claims were exaggerated. While the government paid over 2,000 bounties to eradicate the species, scientific evidence reveals that habitat loss, competition with dogs, and changing patterns of wildfires also contributed to their demise. Finally, disease spread through the remaining population in the 1920s.

11. Toolache Wallaby (1943)

The Toolache Wallaby (Macropus greyi) could be found in Australia and New Zealand. They were considered by many to be the most elegant and graceful species of kangaroo. Their hops consisted of two short hops, followed by a long one. Females were generally taller than males.

The Toolache Wallaby was officially declared extinct in 1943.

The Toolache Wallaby was officially declared extinct in 1943.

Why Did They Become Extinct?

The Toolache Wallaby was common until 1910, became extremely rare by 1923, and were officially declared extinct in 1943. The last living member of the species was a female who lived in captivity for 12 years before dying in 1939. Hunting, habitat destruction (of their swamps), and the introduction of predators, such as foxes, dogs, and dingoes, all led to their demise.

12. Caspian Tiger (1970)

The Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) resided just south of the Caspian Sea and in central Asia. It was one of the biggest cats on the planet (comparable in size to the Siberian tiger) with its legs being much longer than other members of the big cat family.

The Caspian tiger was officially declared extinct in the 1970s.

The Caspian tiger was officially declared extinct in the 1970s.

Why Did They Go Extinct?

The Caspian tiger was officially declared extinct in the 1970s and, of course, humans played a large part in this. The tigers were not only hunted, but they also lost most of their habitat due to human settlement. Furthermore, their typical prey of wild pigs and deer were hunted prolifically by humans, making food scarce.

13. Caribbean Monk Seal (2008)

The Caribbean Monk Seal (Monachus tropicalis) could be found throughout the Caribbean and West Atlantic, however, little is known about their migration patterns. This species was about eight feet long and weighed between 375-600lbs. Christopher Columbus called them "sea wolves" when he observed them in 1494. They are the only pinniped species to have gone extinct.

The Monk Seal was officially declared extinct in 2008.

The Monk Seal was officially declared extinct in 2008.

When Did It Go Extinct and Why?

The Monk Seal was officially declared extinct in 2008 due to human hunting and habitat destruction, but the species hadn't been seen since 1952. In particular, the seals had been easy to hunt when they were birthing, nursing their offspring, or resting on land.

14. Western Black Rhinoceros (2011)

The rarest of the black rhino subspecies, the Western Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes) was commonly found in several African countries, including Kenya, Rwanda, and Zambia. Despite its bulk, it could run up to 55 kph and quickly change direction.

In 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest conservation network, officially declared the Western Black Rhino extinct, but the species was last seen in 2006.

Here are two black rhinos in central Kenya.

Here are two black rhinos in central Kenya.

Why Did They Go Extinct?

Sports hunting in the early 20th century led to a rapid decline of rhino species, including this one. After the hunters, farmers arrived to clear the land and plant crops. Rhinos ate some of the crops and came to be viewed as pests by the farmers, who continued to kill them. Finally, in the early 1950s, Mao Zedong (a Chinese leader) promoted traditional Chinese medicine, which included the use of powdered rhino horn to supposedly cure a multitude of ailments. Poachers quickly killed many of the remaining rhinos, wiping out 98 percent of the population, which was too much for the species to recover from.

15. Pinta Island Tortoise (2012)

The Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii) was a subspecies of giant tortoise that lived on the Galapagos Islands. They slept for about 16 hours a day and drank large quantities of water to store for use at a later time.

Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise, died in 2012.

Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise, died in 2012.

Why Did They Go Extinct?

These tortoises were hunted prolifically for food in the 19th century. Furthermore, their habitat was destroyed in the 1950s when goats were brought to the island. Efforts were made to help the tortoise population remain 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, making the species extinct.

More Recently Extinct Species

The stunning yet dwindling biodiversity on our planet means that some omissions from this list are inevitable. Here are some other beautiful species that are no longer with us:

  • Baiji or Yangtze River Dolphin (declared functionally extinct in 2006—one or two might still be alive, but not enough to continue the species)
  • Mexican Grizzly Bear (1964)
  • Javan Tiger (1994)
  • Japanese Sea Lion (1974)
  • Pyrenean Ibex (2000)
  • Zanzibar Leopard (2008)

Critically Endangered Animals

A critically endangered species is one that has been categorized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. Some of the animals on the list below may already be extinct, but they can't be declared so until extensive, targeted surveys have been completed. Sadly, here are just a few of the beautiful creatures we risk losing, or may already have lost:

  • Amur Leopard
  • Black Rhino
  • Bornean Orangutan
  • Cross River Gorilla
  • Javan Rhino
  • Yangtze Finless Porpoise
  • Sumatran Elephant
  • Orangutan
  • Mountain Gorilla

Currently, there are over 32,000 species threatened with extinction (as assessed by the IUCN), with far more under various levels of threat.

It is tragic that humanity has caused the extinction of so many beautiful animals and shameful that this continues today. 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.

© 2013 Thomas Swan

Comments

Donald Tramp on August 22, 2020:

.... i have no words beside the fact we should bring animals back again

Spleen on August 16, 2020:

I am disturbed by what us humans have done to past animals

Asha lentsment on August 16, 2020:

i love the Tasmanian tiger, i have one in my back yard. (a model of it i mean) Its so sad what has happened to these amazing lovely animals.

nee nees shell nee on June 06, 2020:

don't worrry they might come back in the future

or NOT ;-;

archie on May 28, 2020:

tassie tiger was the best

Susu on May 22, 2020:

Can we bring dino's back?

yesman123 on May 20, 2020:

must be some insane fossil that showed an animal going extinct in bloody 10,000 BC. Poor George.

Owlcation on May 20, 2020:

These animals could of lived a longer life, it's really upsetting that most of their extinction was because of us humans and by that I mean our ancestors. If only they could be brought back somehow but that wouldn't be accurate. Even if they could be brought back the environment isn't really suitable anymore due to pollution and global warming. We need to protect the planet we have now and the animals that are both endangered and not endangered before they go extinct because we will regret it.

Unknown Student on May 14, 2020:

I wish these animals stayed with us :(.

Unkown miraculous ladybug and chat noir fan on May 13, 2020:

How can scientist bring animals back to life?????

UNKNOWN on May 13, 2020:

i was recently searching for the woolly mammoth for my school project..

when i realized soo many animals have gone into extinction becoz of us, i was disturbed ..extinct animals can be brought back, but what about their habitat that we destroyed?there's way too much pollution now..(and a pandemic situation) so that idea should be put aside.protect the animals that are still living ..take an initiative to do whats right..reduce pollution . 'the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago,the 2nd best time is now'

reeeeeeee on May 12, 2020:

it is possible to bring back extinct animals and it has been done before

james on May 08, 2020:

humans are the devil of the earth even tho im one of them. i regret what our anccestors and the people now days are doing to the world i just wished that some these people would just understand that animals have feelings too.