of Loss

Aurochs Bos primigenius 1627 Illustration of an aurochs from Siegmund von Herberstein's Rervm Moscoviticarvm commentarij Sigismundi (1556) – Source

According to many ecologists, we are in the midst of a new mass extinction event. And unlike any other in the Earth’s 4.54 billion year history, this one is caused by a single species of primate: humans. Of course, the death of species is a natural part of evolution, but fuzzy estimates put the current rate of loss at somewhere between 100 and 10,000 times higher than background rates. Our current extinction event is closer to the mass die offs caused by volcanic activity and asteroid impacts than any governing force of evolution. This is both old news and recent history. As early humans ventured from Africa to prosper across the globe, they seem to have left ecological devastation in their wake. Paleoindians, for example, are controversially hypothesized to have hunted various species of North American megafauna into extinction: saber tooth cats, giant beavers, and two tonne armadillos longer than a king-size bed.

But to chalk up the natural world’s destruction to something innately human obscures the specific institutions and individuals that were (and are) outsized contributors to extinction. The stories of the vanished animals gathered below allow us to glimpse these forces and actors. They are stories that are unique to each species, but which exhibit haunting affinities and causal similarities, and all arrive at the same conclusion. Humans might be unparalleled predators, but recent extinctions demonstrate how our deadliest weapon is the forms of collective behavior that economic, political, and social life enshrine. The history of modern extinctions is inseparable from the history of colonialism, capitalism, and industrialization. Of the roughly 800 animal species estimated to have gone extinct since 1500 — and that is only counting those documented — many met tellingly analogous ends: they have been hunted to death for sustenance or sport, killed off by intentionally introduced species and those stowed away on imperial ships, or forced to leave their native habitats as forests were cleared for fields to feed distant metropoles. Despite an enduring fantasy that humans are somehow distinct from the animal kingdom, the loss of biodiversity heralds a grave threat to our species as well — a species that relies upon an intimate interconnection with biological systems for continued life on this planet.

Dodo Raphus cucullatus 1662 Roelandt Savery, The Dodo, ca. late 1620s – Source

In the wake of lukewarm policy achievements at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which ended this month without a commitment to phase out fossil fuels — and at a historic moment when young people are looking toward their environmental future and fighting the hand-wringing apathy of older generations — we have assembled a partial mausoleum of animals lost. This post will continue to be updated, with newly extinct animals, although we hope they fail to materialize at currently projected rates. Our list is truncated, dramatically so — to feature every animal lost since the Age of Exploration would sacrifice specificity for a false sense of completeness. We’ve been drawn to those species that somehow speak to the beauty and variety of what is gone: through their behaviors, impact on biodiversity, and, of course, striking naturalist illustrations in the public domain. There is an unsettling irony here. It prompts the question if our pull toward these animals is not entirely dissimilar from earlier attempts to possess their feathers and hides as tokens of rarity. And many of the illustrations gathered below are based on specimens extracted through the same expeditions, networks, and regimes that ultimately contributed to the animal’s demise.

Images and stories cannot bring back the dead. But we hope this post might help provide a resource for collective mourning, a means to visualize the scale of loss, and perhaps a spur to action. There are 3797 animals currently on IUCN's critically endangered list. We recommend this earth.org introduction on mitigating biodiversity loss; the ranging overview of threats and solutions to animal extinction published by The Solutions Journal, and The Royal Society’s biodiversity hub.

Once widespread in Asia, Europe, and North Africa, the aurochs is believed to be a wild ancestor of domestic cattle. One of the largest herbivores in the Holocene, their grazing of nuts, twigs, and grass shaped historical ecosystems, and their manure supported vast kingdoms of insects and fungi. A prominent participant in human history — and one of the richest food sources before the advent of agriculture — aurochs were among the earliest figures to appear in Paleo- and Neolithic cave paintings and petroglyphs, and feature across Egyptian reliefs, Bronze Age figurines, and classical literature. (The Latin “A” descends from a Phoenician character that some believe was originally meant to represent the creature’s horns, still visible when inverted: ∀). As forests were increasingly clearcut and pastures enclosed, their populations dwindled. The last surviving herd of aurochs lived in the marshy woodlands of Poland’s Jaktorów Forest. The final cow passed away in 1627.

Famously flightless and fearless of humans, the dodo was endemic to Mauritius, evolutionarily forgoing flight due to the richness of abundant food sources and lack of immediate predators. Little remains known about their behavior or appearance (accounting for the varied depiction in naturalist illustrations) due to the narrow research window between their first recorded description, by Dutch sailors in 1598, and last accepted sighting in 1662. Mistaken for an ostrich, albatross, and vulture by colonial explorers, one of the most detailed descriptions of the bird comes from Sir Thomas Herbert’s 1634 travelogue, where he characterizes the creature as having eyes like diamonds and being of a “shape and rareness [that] may antagonize the Phoenix of Arabia”. Despite being sent to Europe and Asia, the last recorded captive dodo died not long after arriving in Nagasaki. Scientists state with confidence that the animal was probably extinct in the wild by 1700 from habitat loss, the introduction of predators to Mauritius, and overharvesting by humans. First used as an example of human-induced extinction in an 1883 magazine, the bird’s memory lives on in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where, with perhaps tragic irony, the dodo declares that the best thing to help the animals would be “a Caucus-race”.

Steller's sea cow Hydrodamalis gigas 1768 Steller's drawing of the sea cow he discovered, featured in Edwin Ray Lankester's Extinct Animals (1905) – Source

Once ranging across the North Pacific during the Pleistocene epoch, by the eighteenth century, this sirenian mammal was found only around the Commander Islands in the Bering Sea. Its first recorded encounter with humans occurred in 1741, when the German botanist and explorer George Wilhelm Steller shipwrecked on Bering Island and spent a year researching wildlife while awaiting rescue, which explains how he came to describe the animal’s taste as reminiscent of corned beef. An obligate herbivore, we know little about the sea cow’s behavior beyond what was observed by Steller, though — unique for its biological order — the animal’s buoyancy was so great that it was unable to submerge in water, instead harvesting kelp with its toothless, bristled mouth from across the ocean surface. Our knowledge is also limited regarding the cause of the sirenian’s extinction, but it is conjectured that populations may have initially dwindled due to hunting by the Siberian Yupik people, and then were further depleted by fur traders traveling the route to Alaska pioneered by Vitus Bering. Literature readers may know the animal as the rare white seal from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and the poetry of W. G. Sebald. While later sightings were reported in the 1800s and as late as 1962, the official extinction date remains 1768, twenty-seven years after Steller discovered the sea cow.

Bluebuck Hippotragus leucophaeus 1799 Illustration of a bluebuck by Robert Jacob Gordon, featured in his Gordon Atlas (1777–1786) – Source

The bluebuck was a species of antelope found in South Africa until the early 1800s. With a lesser mane than roan and sable antelopes, its name derives from a distinct gray-blue coat. When European colonists encountered the animal during the seventeenth century, it was already in decline, due perhaps to a changing grassland habitat around the Cape Peninsula. Hunted to extinction by settlers within a century, biologists did not have long to observe the creature’s behavior before it vanished — many of the extant illustrations of bluebucks seem to have been based on taxidermized specimens. Originally thought to be a blue goat by Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant, scientists now know that the animal once occupied a larger territory. It appears in shamanic paintings attributed to the San peoples and in Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), where the antelope’s belly is said to be “as white as the driven snow”.

Réunion giant tortoise Cylindraspis indica 1840 Engraving from Johann David Schoepf's Historia testudinum (1792). The top creature depicts the Réunion giant tortoise – Source

Comparable in size to modern Galapagos giant tortoises, this animal was endemic to Réunion, where its vast creeps were important for maintaining the biodiversity of forests. Noted to be friendly, curious, and without fear, its populations were exploited by passing sailors in need of oil and food, further shrinking when settlers from France and Madagascar began to occupy the island in the seventeenth century. Like its fellow Mascarene giant tortoise species, the animal’s slow metabolism allowed it to survive without food or water for extended periods, making it perversely suited for being packed into ship holds. While attempts at preservation were legislated for tortoises on Mauritius in the seventeenth century, meaningful protection was not offered for more than a century. The introduction of invasive species further decimated hatchling numbers, with the final observed tortoises dying off in the 1840s. One of the only taxidermized Mascarene tortoise specimens is kept in the haunting Grande Galerie de l’Évolution’s Salle des Espèces Menacées et des Espèces Disparues (The Room of Endangered and Extinct Species) in Paris. As Matt Stanfield writes at the Remembrance Day for Lost Species project, “Disappearing when they did, at a time when modern science was still emerging, the Mascarene giant tortoises occupy a strange halfway house between poorly-understood human-induced casualties of the early modern era and better-known lost species of more recent times.”

Southern black rhinoceros Diceros bicornis bicornis 1850 Illustration of the southern black rhinoceros from Die Säugthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur (ca. 1846) – Source

Historically plentiful in South Africa, southern Namibia, and possibly also Lesotho and Botswana, this species of black rhinoceros went extinct around 1850 due to hunting and habitat destruction. Very little is known about the animal. Carl Linnaeus, who taxonomized the species in 1758, used a holotype of unknown provenance, with some suggesting for a time that the specimen’s skull was actually an Indian rhino with a fake horn attached.

Black-fronted parakeet Cyanoramphus zealandicus 1850 Watercolour by George Forster of a black-fronted parakeet, made in 1744 during Captain James Cook's second voyage to explore the southern continent – Source

Endemic to Tahiti, the black-fronted parakeet was discovered by Europeans during James Cook’s first voyage in 1769 — when the specimens held in Liverpool and at the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum in Tring may have been collected. A woodland species with striking violet-blue flight feathers and vibrant red lores, the parakeet survived deforestation, harvesting by Tahitians for handicrafts, and predation by pigs and kiore (Rattus exulans). With the introduction of cats and European rats to Tahiti, the black-fronted parakeet quickly became extinct as these creatures preyed on the birds and their nests, with the last reported sighting in 1850.

Hoopoe starling Fregilupus varius 1850 Coloured engraving of a hoopoe starling by François-Nicolas Martinet from his Histoire des oiseaux, peints dans tous leurs aspects, apparens et sensibles, ornée de planches coloriées (1790) – Source

Once populating Réunion, this species of starling is thought to have been first recorded by Étienne de Flacourt of the French East India Company in 1658. It was noted to be delicious by Sieur Dubois in 1674, especially “when it is fat” — a reference to the bird’s summer feeding cycles. As a twentieth-century natural historian elaborated somewhat caustically: “It became very fat in June and July, and may have itself been used for food, for it had none of the usual starling alertness, being so stupid that it could easily be knocked down with a stick.” Despite this same scientist proclaiming the passerine’s extinction to be “an ornithological mystery”, Julian P. Hume argues that extreme deforestation was the cause, with contemporary observers recording mass culling to increase the productivity of farms. (In 1807, for example, Levaillant charged the starling with causing “big damage to coffee trees”.) Eulogizing the bird’s extinction in the mid-nineteenth century, Eugène Jacob de Cordemoy wrote: “I have known the bird you ask me about since childhood . . . . After ten years spent in Paris I did not find a single one in the forests where formerly they flew about in flocks. All ruthlessly destroyed. I shall never forgive myself for the part, slight though it was, which I took in the matter.”

Great auk Pinguinus impennis 1852 Coloured engraving of a great auk by François-Nicolas Martinet for Comte de Buffon's Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux (1770–86) – Source

Classed as a flightless alcid, and the only modern species of the genus Pinguinus, this creature gave its name to penguins, as Atlantic sailors believed the latter birds were related to the auk. Historically ranging between eastern North America, Scandinavia, and the Strait of Gibraltar, the great auk mated for life, weighed about five kilograms (eleven pounds), and gurgled when anxious. Human history is tightly entwined with the bird. Its bones have been found around Neanderthal campfires, Native American burial grounds, and it helped European sailors navigate toward the Grand Banks of Newfoundland when adrift at sea. Last officially sighted in 1852, after its swift decline in the hands of harvesters selling its soft down to European clothiers, the bird’s conspicuous absence resulted in novel — though ineffective — protective legislation to be passed in 1753. The long-running ornithology journal The Auk was named in its honor.

Falkland Islands wolf Dusicyon australis 1876 Illustration of the Falkland Islands wolf (labelled with its old taxon name, canis antarcticus) from The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1839) edited by Charles Darwin – Source

“We barely knew the warrah”, begins a recent National Geographic feature on the Falklands Islands wolf. It was first sighted by Captain John Strong in 1690, studied by Charles Darwin in 1833, and then, forty years later, was nevermore. The animal had a reputation for foxlike slyness, hence its original French name, loup-renard (wolf-fox). Darwin remembered how one stole “some meat from beneath the head of a sleeping seaman”. While Thomas Huxley classed the Falklands wolf as a coyote, it is closer to the South American fox (itself not a true fox). The only endemic mammal to the Falkland Islands, the wolf was assumed to have crossed on an Ice Age land bridge to the unpeopled archipelago in some prehistoric time. Yet recent genetic research suggests that the animal left its mainland ancestors in the recent geological past (16,000 years ago), and may have been accompanied by human companions. It was hunted to extinction.

Quagga Equus quagga quagga 1883 Lithograph of a quagga from Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Frédéric Cuvier's Histoire naturelle des mammifères (1824) – Source

Named for an onomatopoeic Khoikhoi word for zebra — thought to mimic the creature’s equine call — the quagga was endemic to South Africa until it was hunted to extinction by European settlers in the late nineteenth century. Brown and white striped, it was known to roam in herds of fifty. William Cornwallis Harris, an English military engineer and big game hunter, described the collective movement during its summer migration, unwittingly capturing the quagga’s place in a landscape rich with biodiversity: “Bands of many hundreds are thus frequently seen doing their migration from the dreary and desolate plains of some portion of the interior, which has formed their secluded abode, seeking for those more luxuriant pastures where, during the summer months, various herbs thrust forth their leaves and flowers to form a green carpet, spangled with hues the most brilliant and diversified.” For centuries before extinction, the quagga played an important part in human culture and agriculture, appearing in cave paintings attributed to the San peoples and used to safeguard livestock by Afrikaner farmers. When a hybrid — the offspring of a quagga that was crossbred with a horse — gave birth to striped children, it led to breakthroughs in theories of telegony. Writing in 1889, naturalist Henry Bryden eulogized the loss of the quagga: “That an animal so beautiful, so capable of domestication and use, and to be found not long since in so great abundance, should have been allowed to be swept from the face of the earth, is surely a disgrace to our latter-day civilization.” Extinct by 1900, a stuffed quagga is held by Leiden’s Naturalis Biodiversity Center, where it is trotted out for special occasions.

Portugese ibex Capra pyrenaica lusitanica 1892 Photograph from a 1908 issue of Ilustração Portuguesa, depicting the last known Portugese ibex, captured in 1890. The caption reads: "The day the goat was caught, it was raining. In Albergaria, work was being done to prepare a site for the nursery. The goat came from above, from Rio do Forno, walking quietly across the dug earth. The workers, sheltered from the rain, discover it and one shouts: ― There goes a goat! — Everyone goes out, screams, surrounds her, one comes to fire a shot that does not hit her. The goat, on the softened land, dug itself more with the effort of escape, leaving one place to take shelter in another, thus allowing men to lay their hands on it, catching for the first time alive a wild goat from the Serra do Gerês, which was also the final sighting." – Source

Half the length of its Pyrenean relative, there remains some debate whether or not the Portuguese ibex was a subspecies or a species of its own. Hunted by mountain-dwelling locals for meat, its ornamental horns, and the seemingly magical stone-like bezoars found in the animal's gastrointestinal tract, its decline tracks the spread and advancement of firearms. “There is little doubt that the Cabro’s only significant enemy was Man”, writes David Day in The Doomsday Book of Animals: A Natural History of Vanished Species (1981). The last known Portuguese ibex died in 1890, although a lone female was spotted near the Serra do Gerês in 1892.