Archive for the ‘Extinct’ Category

The Men from Earth

Here’s the story of these two men:

The truth is that outside of some Amish or Mennonite sects, there probably weren’t a dozen farmers living like this in the late 80s.

But the other truth is that we’re all descended from people who lived like this. In fact, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been such a revolution for our species that it’s pretty staggering how far we’ve come.

West Virginia was once full of people like this, including virtually all of my ancestors. They farmed and hunted and trapped and lived close to the land. They were beings of this planet, not the alien beings that we’re rapidly becoming.



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dimetrodon berea

When I was in eighth grade, one of the classes we had to take was West Virginia history, which also included some of the prehistory and natural history of the state. One thing I remember learning was that our rocks were simply too old to have any dinosaur fossils in them, and I was a little bit crushed. We had plenty of trilobite and fern fossils, but we were going to have to forget about coming across a T. rex.

But then I came across a news item today that mentioned a rather old discovery in Ritchie County (just east of Parkersburg, for the geographically impaired). The news item mentioned that some tracks of a “pre-dinosaur” were found at the Hughes River Bridge in Berea, and that the rocks had been dated to the Permian, some 290 million years ago.

I looked around online for the discovery, and I came across this paper. In 1927, there was road project in Ritchie County that happened to expose these tracks, but it took until 1929 for them to wind up in the hands of specialists who were able to identify it as a Dimetrodon. The species name is now Dimetrodon berea, for the little Ritchie County town in which it was found.

For me, a Dimetrodon is actually a pretty amazing discovery. That’s because a Dimetrodon was actually more closely related to us than to any dinosaur.  Like us, this animal was a synapsid, and synapsids have a single temporal fenestra. There used to be many different lineages of synapsids, but currently only us mammals survive.

So maybe we don’t have any dinosaur fossils, but we do have these tracks of a pretty fell beast that was much closer to us than we’d like to admit.


This is actually one of the better known Dimetrodon specimens. It’s not that hard to find replicas of the tracks for sale online.

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What was Junggarsuchus?


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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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Could the extinct elephants of North China that lived as recently as 3,000 years ago be a relict species of straight-tusked elephant?

Could the extinct elephants of North China that lived as recently as 3,000 years ago have been a relict species of straight-tusked elephant?

Much of China was home to elephants, but the records of elephants in northern China bothered scientists.

The Asian elephant (Elaphas maximus) is a tropical species that does roam up into southwestern provinces of China. It is poorly adapted to  the cooler temperate climate that characterize much of central and northern China.

So was there an unusually cool climate-adapted subspecies of Asian elephant in China?

It turns out that the answer is no.

And the truth is more spectacular than we might have imagined.

A team of researchers in China examined the fossilized teeth of elephants from the Shang and Zhou Dynasties from 4,000 to 3,000 years ago and also examined elephant-shaped bronzes.

Their findings suggest that the elephants of North China were not Asian elephants but a relict species of a genus of elephant that was believe to have gone extinct 10,000 years ago.

The researchers believe that the elephants of North China were a late surviving species of Palaeoloxodon or “straight-tusked elephant.”

Now, one should be a bit skeptical of this research. Tooth morphology can have a tendency towards convergence. If these elephants actually were a subspecies of Asian elephant, it is possible that they might have evolved similar dentition to straight-tusked elephants, and one should be careful about making claims of animal morphology based upon artistic expression. Even photographic evidence can be somewhat dubious, so one needs to be careful about using artwork in this fashion.

That said, if these findings are corroborated with more evidence– say, an examination of a full elephant skeleton from that time period– then it will be one of the most amazing findings in recent years.

It’s only recently become clear that there are actually two species of elephant in Africa, and if these findings are further corroborated with more evidence, then Asia also had two species in historic times.



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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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You know those game ranches that produce trophy animals for people to hunt?

You know– the ones that both the animal rights activists and the self-styled defenders of the “true hunt” defame?

Well, they are actually saving endangered species! And the US Fish and Wildlife Service used to agree!

Check out this 60 Minutes piece on the role that these ranches are playing in saving certain endangered species.

I have a very different view of these ranches than I once did. I’m opposed to canned hunting in which people shoot animals in cages, but I have nothing against these well-run game ranches.

Altruism alone won’t save many endangered species. Economic value is a very is very important conservation tool, whether people want to admit it or not.

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