A Bestiary of Loss

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.

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.

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The stories collected are informed by Wikipedia’s list of recently extinct animals, Julian P. Hume’s profoundly detailed Extinct Birds, and many other linked resources. We have also benefited from the Guardian’s Age of Extinction series, Scientific American’s Extinction Countdown, and the Remembrance Day for Lost Species project.