On the 100th anniversary of one of history’s most numerous birds becoming extinct, conservationists hope to help prevent other common species at risk from following the same path.
by Barry Yeoman
In 1834 a geologist named George William Featherstonbaugh was traveling through the American South when he came across a migration of passenger pigeons, at the time the most plentiful bird on the continent. “Flocks of them many miles long came across the country, one flight succeeding to another, obscuring the daylight,” he wrote. “When such myriads of timid birds as the wild pigeon are on the wing, often wheeling and performing evolutions almost as complicated as pyrotechnic movements, and creating whirlwinds as they move, they present an image of the most fearful power. Our horse, Missouri, at such times, has been so cowed by them, that he would stand still and tremble in his harness.”
Seventy years later the passenger pigeon was extinct, the victim of such savage hunting of adults and squabs alike that the birds could no longer reproduce enough to keep up. The development of the telegraph and railroad helped create an industry of itinerant pigeon hunters who followed the flocks and killed and shipped the birds by the millions for sale as food in urban markets. The pigeons also suffered from the human belief that our own activity couldn’t possibly wipe out such an abundant species.
The last passenger pigeon, a female named Martha, died around September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo, where she had lived her entire 29 or so years. Now, during the centennial of Martha’s death, a group of enthusiasts is planning a year of commemorations. They hope to educate the public not just about the pigeon but also about the value of wildlife conservation and our role in preventing natural disasters, including extinctions…
The little lizard thing on the lower branch is a crested gecko (Correlophus ciliatus). The plants pictured include:
Asplenium sp. - the bird’s nest fern, Austrogramme marginata, Nepenthes sp. - the pitcher plant, Dendrobium ngoyense - the yellow orchid, D. masarangense - the little white orchid, Amyema scandens - the weird red parasitic vine, Tmesipteris sp.
There are no leaves or flowers of the actual tree visible, but judging by the obligate symbiont fungi (Podoserpula miranda, only described in 2013) it must be the endemic oak gum (Arillastrum gummiferum).
In case I sound too smart, don’t worry. I have no idea whether all these species live in the same habitats or even in the same part of New Caledonia. And they’re probably not all epiphytes. I just stumbled upon them and liked them. I could not even find names for all the plants, but they’re drawn after photos people have taken in the forests of New Caledonia.”
Excerpt from The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Writer Elizabeth Kolbert travels the globe investigating evidence that a mass extinction is underway.
The Icelandic Institute of Natural History occupies a new building on a lonely hillside outside Reykjavik. The building has a tilted roof and tilted glass walls and looks a bit like the prow of a ship. It was designed as a research facility, with no public access, which means that a special appointment is needed to see any of the specimens in the institute’s collection. These specimens, as I learned on the day of my own appointment, include: a stuffed tiger, a stuffed kangaroo, and a cabinet full of stuffed birds of paradise.
The reason I’d arranged to visit the institute was to see its great auk. Iceland enjoys the dubious distinction of being the bird’s last known home, and the specimen I’d come to look at was killed somewhere in the country—no one is sure of the exact spot—in the summer of 1821…
Fossil records suggest that the dolphin first appeared 25 million years ago and migrated from the Pacific Ocean to the Yangtze River 20 million years ago. It was one of four species of dolphins known to have made fresh water their exclusive habitat. The other three species, including the boto and the La Plata dolphin, have survived in the Río de la Plata and Amazon rivers in South America and the Ganges and Indus rivers on the Indian subcontinent.
It is estimated that there were 5,000 baiji when they were described in the ancient dictionary Erya circa 3rd century BC. A traditional Chinese story describes the baiji as the reincarnation of a princess who had been drowned by her family after refusing to marry a man she did not love. Regarded as a symbol of peace and prosperity, the dolphin was nicknamed the “Goddess of the Yangtze.”
In the 1950s, the population was estimated at 6,000 animals, but declined rapidly over the subsequent five decades. Only a few hundred were left by 1970. Then the number dropped down to 400 by the 1980s and then to 13 in 1997 when a full-fledged search was conducted. Now the most endangered cetacean in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the baiji was last sighted in August 2004, though there was a possible sighting in 2007. It is listed as an endangered species by the U.S. government under the Endangered Species Act. It is now thought to be extinct.
… was probably extinct by the 1980s, but it formerly bred in the bottomland forests and canebrakes of the southeastern United States and wintered almost exclusively in Cuba. The species was first collected by the Reverend John Bachman in South Carolina (U.S.A.) and formally described by his friend John James Audubon shortly thereafter in 1833.
Bachman’s Warbler was subsequently largely forgotten for half a century until it was rediscovered by Charles Galbraith, who shot several dozen over the course of several years and brought one to George Lawrence for identification (Lawrence 1887; Fuller 2002). For several decades after its rediscovery, Bachman’s Warblers were encountered in fair numbers at several breeding locations and, during migration, in Florida. By 1920, however, Bachman’s Warbler was scarce over most of its range and only a handful of breeding birds or migrants were encountered after 1930. The last undisputed sighting was of a single bird near Charleston, South Carolina, in 1962…
A Glimpse of What We’ve Lost: 10 Extinct Animals in Photos
by Mat McDermott
1. Thylacine (pictured BR):
The largest carnivorous marsupial in modern times (standing about 2’ tall and 6’ long including the tail), the Thylacine once lived in mainland Australia and New Guinea, by the time of European settlement it was already nearly extinct, due to human activity. In Tasmania however (hence, the more common name of Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf) it lived on, with the last one confirmed killed in the wild in 1930. The last Thylacine in captivity, pictured above, died in 1936…
A Strange Saga of Bribery, Skinny-Dipping, and a 12-Ton Sea Cow
by Matt Simon
On July 12, 1742, German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller was standing atop a titanic beast hitherto unknown to science, taking measurements and jotting down descriptions while battling marauding foxes keen on stealing his food and, for reasons known only to the foxes, his maps and papers and ink.
He and a handful of other men were shipwrecked. They’d run aground on a small frozen island between Russia and what is now Alaska and had little food. Their captain, the famed Vitus Bering, was dead of scurvy. Steller, a brilliant man who did not suffer fools gladly, was woefully unpopular among the crew, who happened to be fools. Furious dispute had erupted when, no joke, Steller insisted they eat their vegetables to stave off scurvy.
Between the foxes and fools and freezing rain and lack of reference books, it’s a miracle he could compile so astonishingly thorough a description of the beast that would take his name: Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas). It was a new sirenian, an order of marine mammals including manatees and dugongs so named because they flash and scream when threatened (no they don’t — they’re named after the sirens of Greek mythology, who, like these animals, frequented shorelines)…
Imagine that tomorrow morning you woke up and discovered that the familiar rock pigeon—scientifically known as Columba livia, popularly known as the rat with wings—had disappeared. It was gone not simply from your window ledge but from Piazza San Marco, Trafalgar Square, the Gateway of India arch, and every park, sidewalk, telephone wire, and rooftop in between. Would you grieve for the loss of a familiar creature, or rip out the spikes on your air-conditioner and celebrate?
Perhaps your reaction would depend on the cause of the extinction. If the birds had been carried off in a mass avian rapture, or a pigeon-specific flu, you might let them pass without guilt, but if they had been hunted to death by humans you might feel honor-bound to genetically engineer them back to life.
This thought experiment occurred to me while reading “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction” (Bloomsbury), Joel Greenberg’s study of a bird that really did vanish after near-ubiquity, and that really is the subject of Frankenpigeon dreams of resurrection. Even before the age of bioengineering, Ectopistes migratorius could seem as much science-fiction fable as fact, which is why it is good to have Greenberg’s book, the first major work in sixty years about the most famous extinct species since the dodo…
The Bushwren (Xenicus longipes), Bush Wren, or Mātuhituhi in Maori, was a very small and almost flightless bird endemic to New Zealand. It grew to about 9 cm long and 16 g in weight. It fed mostly on invertebrates which it captured by running along the branches of trees. It nested on or near the ground.
It was widespread throughout the main islands of the country until the late 19th century when mustelids were introduced and joined rats as invasive mammalian predators…
The species is probably extinct but it is not impossible that it survives…
A passenger pigeon Martha(named after Martha Washington), the last survivor of an American species that numbered in the millions (billions even) prior to the 1880’s, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
Her body was donated to the Smithsonian Institution and brought to the United States National Museum, now the National Museum of Natural History, for permanent preservation. Mounted in a display case with this notation: “MARTHA, last of her species, died at 1 p.m., 1 September 1914, age 29, in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden. EXTINCT”, this bird documents an unhappy chapter in the conservation of wildlife.