Archive for the ‘Extinct animals’ Category

Keulemans great auk

I have had discussions with people who don’t think that extinction of species is as big a deal as conservationists want to make out.

Mass extinctions are not uncommon in the history of the earth. We just happen to be living at the time a mass extinction. No harm. No foul.

But really it’s no fowl.

I think the most profound question about extinction is one I often hear politicians make about national debt or the strength of social insurance programs:  Surely you don’t want to leave behind that much debt for our children?  Surely you want social security to be around for future generations?

The concept of “generational theft” can also be brought to bear on the question of extinction.

There are many animals that I’ve never seen alive.

I came to late to see a sea mink slinking along a rocky Maine shore, and I came too late to see the skies blacken with passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews. I will never be able to visit the Falklands and see that unique island wolf that once roamed its beaches, and I will never know what it’s like to hear the Carolina parakeets, the great North American conure, flit through the forests of West Virginia.

These animals have all been robbed from me by the previous generations.

But I cannot go back in time and tell them to stop the madness. They were merely operating within the cultural frameworks of their time. Nature’s bounty appeared to be limitless, and then came the fall.

Even the scientists of the day weren’t aware of what they were doing.

A case in point is the great auk, a giant flightless sea bird that was native to the North Atlantic. It swam and dived much like the penguins of the southern oceans, but it was more agile than a penguin in the water.

The great auk was in the family of sea birds that includes the puffins, the murres, and guillemots. All living birds in the family can fly, but the great auk could not.  As a result, the great auk was forced to nest on remote islands with sloping approaches to the sea. All the other birds in the family could fly into jagged rocks that protruded from the sea, but the great auk was greatly handicapped in this regard.

To make matters worse, there were only a finite number of such islands in the whole North Atlantic, and each summer, they would become jammed with throngs of giant black-and-white birds.

Sailors on fishing and whaling ships were quick to notice  the boon that came from fat birds laying nice, plump eggs on easily accessed islands. Not only could they kill the birds and eat them, they could also collect their eggs. And if a whaling ship needed a bit more oil to top off its stores, it could render down some auks into oil. Fishermen used the meat for bait, and down collectors found its down a good substitute for eider.

In the early nineteenth century, its population crashed, and every naturalist worth his salt demanded eggs and skins of adults for taxidermy.  There was a rush to kill as many auks as possible and to collect as many eggs. Every gentleman naturalist wanted specimens and eggs for study, and the fishermen and whalers were happy to provide them.

It was in this madness that the last of the great auks were killed on the island of Eldey off the coast of Iceland. The extinction of the great auk happened when three Icelandic fishermen came across a pair of the auks tending to their single egg.   Two men killed the adults, and the third man, perhaps angry that there were only two birds to be had, smashed their egg with his boot.

This attack happened on July 3, 1844, and that date is rather unique. It is one of the few times we know the very second of an extinction. Those auks were the last two birds of their kind, and they were killed in the name of scientific curiosity.

This story has been dramatized in so many books that it’s almost reached legendary status.

It’s because this is one of the few times we know exactly when the generational theft was complete.

Reading account after account of how numerous great auks were in the North Atlantic, my imagination is piqued.

What would have been like to see the great assemblages of auks on their islands?

It’s something I will never see. It’s something that I can only read about in books and conjure up in the back of my mind.

A piece of me is angry that the great auk was allowed to go extinct in this fashion, but it is that anger that I realize a simply moral truism.

What if someday, future generations look back on us and wonder why we didn’t do enough to stop the tiger or the cheetah from becoming extinct?

Extinction for both of these cats is a very real possibility, and if they do go, we will be as much robbers as the men who took the lives of the last auks.

Knowing what we know now, don’t we at least owe it to future generations to try to preserve a bit.

Is that too much to ask?

Or are we so consumed with ourselves that we can’t try  to save a bit?

The answer to that question is the one that will show us who we were to the historians of the future.

Were we able to hold forth on our engines of progress just a bit to allow a few truly remarkable wild things survive?

Or were we took caught up in the desire to subdue it all?

We are never going to return to the mythic age before man. Many anti-conservationists scoff at the strawman that claims that all conservationist want to do is destroy civilization and return it back to the days when all things were wild and untouched.

So long as humans exist on the planet, that goal can never be achieved, and all conservationists know this.

But just because we cannot return to the true ecological Garden of Eden doesn’t mean we can’t try to preserve what we can.

To refuse to do otherwise is to be comfortable with a terrible kind of generational theft.

I certainly am not.





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When I was a boy, I used to catch eastern fence lizards and five-line skinks. I never knew the proper name of the former species.

In West Virginia, they are always called “hell hogs,” which, in my estimation, is far cooler name than “eastern fence lizard.”

The fence lizards are in the suborder Iguania, and they superficially resemble their distant iguana cousins. They even do that head bobbing behavior that iguanas do.

I was always fascinated by iguanas. They were like giant hell hogs, and when I learned that there were iguanas on the Galapagos Islands that actually went into the sea to eat algae, I was utterly amazed.

These were real sea lizards!

What I didn’t know at the time is that the marine iguanas weren’t the first lizards to go into the sea.

The truth is that millions of years ago, there were lizards that were adapted to an entirely marine existence.

As a kid, I didn’t know this.

I thought that dinosaurs actually were large lizards, and all my toy dinosaurs had legs that bowed out like those of a monitor lizard.

One of the sad things about the popular conception of dinosaurs is that we think that name, which means “terrible lizard,” actually means that these animals were lizards.

The truth is that all dinosaurs are more closely related to birds than they are to the little fence lizards of my youth. Some dinosaurs are even closer to birds than that, and now, if we are to classify them systematically, we have to consider birds a subset of dinosaurs. Their technical name is “avian theropod dinosaurs.”

I was somewhat crestfallen when I found this out.

That meant that the only amazing lizards were marine iguanas and my other favorite species, the komodo dragon.

What I didn’t know is that there were actually lizards that were every bit as amazing as any dinosaurs.

And you have to forgive my ignorance here.

I actually didn’t know about the marine lizards known as mosasaurs until about three or four years ago.

When I found out that these truly marine lizards existed, I was elated.

The animal depicted above is Platecarpus. It was a highly derive mosasaur that was once common in the Western Interior Seaway that divided North America into two land masses during the Late Cretaceous.

There is a strong suggestion that its tail bent down and a caudal fin was attached to the bend to make a shark-like tail.

And it was basically a 14-foot shark lizard that lived around 80-85 million years ago. A recent study revealed that it even swam much like a shark, which means it would have been one of the fiercest predators in the seas of its time.

Mosasaurs evolved from an archaic varanoid lizards called aigialosaurids, but this is, of course, hotly contested. Aigialosaurids looked an awful lot like modern monitor lizards, and it has been the recent fashion to count mosasaurs as varanoids. Currently, there is a lot of debate over what’s a varanoid. Some authorities count snakes as a type of highly derived varanoid, and if we count snakes as lizards, then sea snakes are also marine lizards.

But there isn’t a sea snake that is anything like a shark.

Evolution is one of the most amazing facts I’ve come to understand.

When I was a kid, my grandmother would keep little chicks from her laying hens in boxes next to her wood-burning stove. In the early spring, the hens would sometimes get too far ahead of themselves and lay eggs before the spring frosts topped, and very often, the chicks would be exposed to the elements and would die. My grandmother always brought those early spring chicks in, and they would be kept warm by the fire.

I didn’t know that these fragile little fuzzballs were actually more closely related to the Tyrannosaurus than they were to anything else living on the planet at the time.

And I didn’t know that the little lizards I used to hold in my hands and put in mason jars and homemade enclosures once were related to beasts that once rivaled sharks in the ancient seas.

Evolution is one of the most amazing facts you’ll ever understand,.

It will humble you, and it will make you look at the natural world in ways that you never thought possible.

That’s why I want people to understand it.

When I found out exactly what it was about, it was one of the most liberating experiences of my life.

And it really stimulated my imagination.

I know that I won’t look at a common fence lizard without the idea of a mosasaur coming up in the back of my mind.

I will marvel at that little lizard.

Not a mosasaur.

But a cousin of sorts.

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From UPI’s Science News:

A British study on the extinction of woolly mammoths found the last known population of the prehistoric animals did not die out because of inbreeding.

The study, conducted jointly by British and Swedish scientists, examined bones, teeth and tusks from Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean where the last known population of woolly mammoths lived about 4,000 years ago, the BBC reported.

Mammoths generally disappeared from mainland Eurasia and North America about 10,000 years ago, but lived on for another 6,000 years on Wrangel Island.

“Wrangel Island is not that big and it was initially thought that such a small population could have suffered problems of inbreeding and a lack of genetic diversity,” said the report’s co-author, Dr. Love Dalen of the department of molecular systematics at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.

Researchers found that, contrary to popular belief, the animals more likely were killed off by human activity or environmental factors.

The report, published Friday, concluded that the extinction of mammoths on Wrangel Island was “not a delayed outcome of an inevitable process” such as inbreeding.

“This suggests that the final extinction was caused by a rapid change in the mammoths’ environment, such as the arrival of humans or a change in climate, rather than a gradual decline in population size,” the study said.

The study also found the population of mammoths on the island generally ranged between 500 and 1,000.

Dalen said the study can be useful in modern-day conservation programs.

“What’s really interesting is that maintaining 500 effective individuals is a very common target in conservation programs,” he said. “Our results therefore support the idea that such an effective population size is enough to maintain genetic diversity for thousands of years. These mammoths did fine with what was originally considered to be a small number.

One should note that most dog breeds have far fewer than 500 effective individuals in their populations.

That should be a cause for concern, but one should realize that there are other measures of genetic diversity that need to be considered when making these conclusions.

Many people are not aware that mammoths actually did live into historic times, although in that part of the world written records from that time period are probably nonexistent.

But they were there.

And they were thriving.

Because their extinction is so late in time, it is possible that hunting pressure could have caused the extinction. However, there is no evidence that humans ever hunted these mammoths, so the most likely reason for their extinction is climate change.

There is a lot of debate about what cause the extinction of mammoths on mainland Eurasia and North America. Human overkill and climate change have been bandied about for decades.  And a third possibility, a combination of climate change and human hunting pressures, seems to be the current best-supported hypothesis. The mainland extinction was part of a much larger megafaunal extinction that happened at the end of the Pleistocene.

Of course, now we have mad scientists in Russia and South Korea who are going to clone a mammoth.  (But this project is much more difficult than one might realize).

But these cloned animals will always be  gimmick.

They will never be a self-sustaining population.

But it wasn’t that long ago that there was a healthy, genetically diverse, and sustainable population of mammoths.

Of course, on i09’s article on this same study, we have the obligatory creationist analysis in the comments section:

What’s even more mind-boggling is.. The Earth was completely different before the Great Flood with lots of creatures and animals that people in the world today either deny existed or refuse to believe could have existed.

They never give up, do they?








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The following description is of a giant gray lynx that was killed in Pennsylvania in 1874. It comes from Henry Wharton Shoemaker’s Extinct Pennsylvania Animals (1919) :

John G. Davis, old-time woodsman of McElhattan, Clinton County, gives the best description of a mammoth Canada Lynx killed by John Pluff at Hyner, in that county, in 1874. Pluff, who was a noted hunter in his day, died in January, 1914, in his 74th year. One evening, when Pluff was at supper, he heard a commotion in his barnyard. Taking down his rifle, he hurried out, only to notice a shaggy animal moving about among the feet of his young cattle. Courageously driving the steers into the barn, he came face to face with a gigantic Canada Lynx, or, as was called in Northern Pennsylvania, a “Big Grey Wild Cat,” or catamount, to distinguish it from the smaller and ruddier Bay Lynx [bobcat].

Taking aim at the monster’s jugular, Pluff fired, killing the big cat with a single ball. The shot attracted the neighbors, among them Davis, and they gazed with amazement at the giant carcass, the biggest cat killed in those parts since Sam Snyder slew his 10-foot panther on Young Woman’s Creek in 1858. The Canada Lynx measured 4 feet, 10 inches from tip of nose to root of tail—(the tail measured 4 inches)—and weighed 75 pounds.

The next day being Thanksgiving, it was supplemented to the turkey feast, and all enjoyed the deliriously flavored white meat more than the conventional “Thanksgiving bird.” This lynx was probably a straggler from the Northern Tier, as none of its kind have been about Hyner since. At the same time, the Canada Lynx has been killed in many parts of Pennsylvania, as far south as the Seven Mountains and Somerset County, some claim, but never frequently. It hangs close to the main chain of the Allegheny Mountains, if it can make a living there (pg. 183-184).

Now, this story should be taken with a grain of salt.

Exaggerated sizes for large predators are almost de rigueur for frontier stories.

But I don’t dismiss it out of hand.

The typical Canada lynx is big at about 40 inches in length, and it weighs only 18 to 24 pounds.  They are rangier than bobcats, but they will weigh less than the biggest bobcat.

This 75- pound  “lynx” in Pennsylvania doesn’t sound like a Canada lynx to me at all.

The truth is we really don’t have a good handle on the native mammals of North America that lived before the modern conservation movement.

I think it is very possible that there were very large lynx in the United States. This animal could have been a very large gray bobcat, for bobcats are well-known to vary greatly in size. Canada lynx actually don’t. Throughout their range, they are essentially the same size– 18-24 pounds.

This particular cat– if it did weigh 75 pounds– probably wasn’t built like the rangy Canada lynx we know today. It would have had to have been a particularly robust creature.

Or it could have been a unique species of lynx that we never were able to document before it became extinct.

There is the persistent story of the Ozark howler, a giant black bobcat that lived in the mountains of Arkansas and Missouri, and I think it might be possible for European man to have made it impossible for large lynx and bobcats to survive.

After all, a farmer is much more likely to tolerate a 25-pound bobcat than a 75-pound bobcat or lynx.

Eurasian lynx to reach this size, and they are very effective predators of deer.

And it is well-known that bobcats and Canada lynx evolved from the Eurasian lynx.

Traditional accounts say that the bobcat became diminutive to avoid competition with already extant large predators in North America, and the Canada lynx invaded the continent in a later wave, where it became established in the Northern part of the continent as a snowshoe hare specialist.

But could there have been large lynx-type cats in North America in modern times?

I don’t know how good the evidence is, but we do have these tantalizing historical accounts that make us wonder.

Maybe there were large bobcats and/or undocumented lynx species in North America during an earlier time, and these animals were wiped out because of the potential threat they posed toward livestock.

Again, I am very skeptical that this cat was a Canada lynx. Canada lynx are actually quite poor at preying upon livestock and deer. Bobcats are actually much better at it.

The size of this animal could be a mere exaggeration, but we do have Eurasian lynx that are that size.

So it’s possible.

But what it exactly was is still a unanswered and unanswerable question.

It’s fun to speculate, eh?

I can’t decide whether it’s a mere exaggeration or if there actually was a lynx or bobcat of that size.

It’s up in the air for me!

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It’s a shame he’s not trying to clone a T. rex.  He’d probably figure out that they aren’t scavengers. (I always have to put that one in there whenever I do something with Jack Horner.)


Dylan Ratigan has a very hard time with phylogenetics, but most people do.

Alligators are archosaurs, as a all crocodilians. “Reactivating” dormant ancestral genes in alligator might develop a cursorial crocodilian, like the scaly coyote. (“Reactivating” in many of these cases is actually turning off or knocking out modern genes.)

Dinosaurs are also archosaurs. Birds are the only surviving dinosaurs.

That’s because “reactivating” ancestral genes actually means knocking out genes

That’s often hard for people to grasp, for it is often assumed that dinosaurs were actually something like lizards.  To quote creationist and tax fraud Kent Hovind: ” Dinosaurs were just big lizards that lived before the flood.”    Never mind the flood. Dinosaurs were and aren’t “big lizards.”  They are not closely related to lizards at all.

This video will explain it all:


Thinking of birds as dinosaurs is a difficult concept.  That means that it’s Kentucky Fried Dinosaur, and we have dogs that hunt dinosaurs. People go dinosaur watching all the time.  We have dinosaur for Thanksgiving dinner.

But once you realize it, it really changes your perspective. Then, you’re more open to the concept that dogs are wolves, and that people are great apes. And great apes are actually a type of Old World monkey, which means you are a monkey.


I hope that Jack Horner is successful with this project.  Not only is it hard for people to understand that birds are dinosaurs, the concepts in evolution are very hard to grasp without a concrete example.

A dinosaur-like chicken created in this fashion would be very good evidence for evolution, and it would be the closest thing to a concrete example that people could actually see and touch.


More info:


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Arctic wolf

In perusing the names and descriptions of cryptids canids, I came across two animals that sound very similar. These are the waheela of Alaska and the Northwest territory and Ontario Giant wolf. Both of these are described as larger than normal wolves that are white in color. There is also another wolf from Inuit mythology called Amorak, who is a giant white wolf. The waheela is said not to hunt in packs, which is quite different from modern wolf populations.

What could these be?

Well, I don’t happen to believe that there are any relict populations of dire wolf, hyena, creodont, or bear dog left in North America. I do think, however, that modern wolves are far more diverse in appearance than we realize– and have historically evolved in shapes that are mirrored with some exaggeration in their domestic form.

For example, everyone seems to know about the dire wolf (Canis dirus), but did you know that there were large wolves of the  C. lupus species that have very similar adaptations to those of the dire wolf? These wolves were not dire wolves, but an extinct population of modern wolves. In fact, these wolves are the ancestors of no living wolf or dog population.

The indigenous people of North America surely knew of these larger subspecies of wolves. In fact, they probably knew a very diverse population of wolves, which we cannot imagine today. For not only were there coyotes and dire wolves, there were also many diverse forms of the C. lupus species.  And as we know today, not all subspecies of wolves form packs.

It’s very likely that the waheela and the mythology about Amarok are based on these extinct forms of modern wolf, which have survived in the folklore of the native peoples of their respective regions. Maybe these big game hunting wolves were not pack hunters. Who knows?

Now, the Ontario white wolf could be a similar story– either the dire wolf or some unusual and extinct form of modern wolf has survived in the folklore of the indigenous people.

However, I have a far more likely story.

Everyone knows that there are large white wolves in North America, specifically in the northern reaches of Canada and in the praire provinces. The most famous North American subspecies with white fur-coloring is Canis lupus arctos. It is almost always white in color. They are born gray and stay that color for the first few years of their lives, but then turn white in color.

Now, this subspecies is larger than both subspecies found in the more settled areas of Ontario, which are C. l. nubilus and C. l. lycaon. Neither of those are rather large wolves and virtually none of them are white,  although nubilus sometimes comes in a cream color. Lycaon is almost always gray, although in its fomer range in the US, it was sometimes black.

Most people living in those areas would be more accustomed to seeing wolves that looked like these animals.

But what would happen if an Arctic wolf showed up?

My guess is you’d get legends about a giant Ontario wolf that was white in color.

But how would an Arctic wolf make it the settled areas of Ontario?

Well, as the old Russian proverb goes: “A wolf is kept fed by its feet.” And as a result, wolves have evolved long legs and efficient gaits to travel vast distances.  Sometimes wolves travel hundreds of miles from where they are born. In fact, when you wolves disperse from their natal packs, they very often travel a very long way to set up new territories. It’s a good strategy to prevent inbreeding.

Perhaps a young dispersing Arctic wolf popped up in the settled regions of Ontario, where it was thought to be some sort of giant white wolf.

I think a lot of these cryptid canines are nothing more than unusual subspecies of C. lupus, extinct animals that have survived into folklore, or hybrids. If you cross a domestic dog  (especially those that don’t look like wolves) with a wolf, you have no clue what you’re going to get in terms of appearance or behavior.  You could get a very strange looking animal indeed.

In fact, I think this is why the people of eighteenth century France thought the Beasts of Gevaudan were  some weird creatures. They were larger than any wolf native to France and far more aggressive. It’s very likely that these were hybrids between wolves and some French mastiff (an ancestor of today’s dogue de Bordeaux). The ancestral dogues were very aggressive, and what’s more, they often came in brindle coloration, which describes the “tiger stripess” the beasts perfectly. In fact, dogs of the mastiff type were used as weapons of mass destruction and torture in Spanish colonies in the New World.

I don’t think the waheela or the Ontario giant wolves are hybrids.

I just think they are either extinct subspecies that survived in native folklore or members of extant large white  subspecies that wandered into areas where the locals were not familiar with them.

Keep in mind that we are just now getting to understand how diverse wolves were in pre-historic times. This should be no shock to us. We see this diversity reflected in their domestic forms, which vary in size from the tiny chihuahua to enormous mastiff. We have bulldogs and pekes were very bandy short legs and flattened faces, but we also have long-nosed Afghan hounds and borzoi, which are built on gracile frames with very long legs.

And most of this diversity in shape and size in domestic dogs has come about only in the past few centuries. However, dogs have varied in appearance and type since they were domesticated anywhere from 10,000 to 135,000 years ago.

Now, think about that for a minute. If dogs can evolve into so many shapes and sizes in just a few millennia through artificial selection, imagine what wolves could evolve into through millions of years of natural selection in such varied habitats throughout their historical native range?

So for those reasons, I don’t think the waheela and Ontario white wolf are separate species and certainly aren’t new species of canid.

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