Tag Archives: extinction

What the Heck?

Once upon a time in South Africa, there lived a curious zebra that only had half its stripes. It was called the Quagga, and the Dutch and British colonialists didn’t know quite what to make of it, for it only had stripes on the front half of its body, and those stripes were so variable in their waviness that naturalists couldn’t be sure if there was only one species, or many. While the scientists pondered this question, the hunters kindly answered for it for them by blasting the quagga into extinction. Now there were no species!

Then, in 1971, a South African naturalist named Reinhold Rau, following a challenge proposed by German biologist Lutz Heck, decided to try to bring back the quagga, even though the last one had died in a zoo in 1840. After all, what is a quagga but a zebra with a plain brown butt? DNA analysis of quagga remains in 1980 further encouraged Rau: it turned out that the quagga was not its own species, but a sub-species of Plains Zebras. Rau embarked on his mad mission, visiting the world’s zoos and selecting Plains Zebras to breed. Finally, in 2005, a foal named Henry was born with the trademark quagga quirks. Party up front, business in the back. But Henry presented a new conundrum: if it walks like a quagga, and eats like a quagga, and is striped like a quagga, is it a quagga? Is it possible to recreate natural selection through artificial selection? Can you bring an extinct species back from the dead? Well, the quagga isn’t the first animal we’ve tried to put back together from missing pieces.

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Neanderthals in the Mist

There is no such thing as Bigfoot. There’s no Sasquatch, no Stink-Ape, no Yeti. The existence of Bigfoot, I believe, is indefensible: there are no fossils, no remains, not even Bigfoot scat. But a more interesting question than “Does Bigfoot exist?” is “Why doesn’t Bigfoot exist?” In other words, why isn’t there room for a large, hairy primate in the forests of North America? The answer, I believe, is two-fold. The first reason there aren’t more monkeys north of the Rio Grande is that primates don’t tend to do well in chilly climates. The other reason is that if Bigfoot were real, we would have eaten him by now.

The Golden Snub-Nosed Monkey is the primate living at the highest, coldest altitudes besides mankind. While those hot spring-loving Japanese Macaques are the northernmost-dwelling monkey, the Golden Snub-Nosed Monkey tolerates cold the best in its home in the mountains of Southern China, up to 14,850 feet above sea level. This semi-arboreal species able to survive the freezing temperatures with their double layer of golden fur, and by eating lichen and tree bark during the winter. They’ve been seen eating snow, and digging through the snow to find grasses when times are really tough. These sociable monkeys have no qualms about huddling together for warmth, and make a variety of cheerful noises — often without moving their faces at all. They’re the ventriloquists of the monkey world.

So this is as close as evolution has come yet to producing a Yeti. No ape besides us can stand snow, as apes are either vegetarians or omnivores, and palatable plants are in short supply in places that have white Christmases. If our imaginary Bigfoot existed, he’d be in direct competition with another giant, hairy omnivore: the grizzly bear. It is, after all, what undoubtedly made “Bigfoot’s” tracks. When it comes to the big fuzzy monster niche, perhaps the giant shoes had already been filled. And perhaps that’s for the best, because Homo sapiens has a habit of taking out its competition in the hominid department: first, the other species of humans, and now, the monkeys.

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The New Drake Equation

The conservationist world got some rare good news last week. A pair of researchers at the University of Queensland researched every species of mammal that had, at one time since the 1500’s, been deemed extinct, and concluded that, in approximately one-third of cases, reports of their deaths had been greatly exaggerated. This hopefully means that up a third of mammals currently considered extinct today may actually just be extremely rare and hiding. The whole article is worth the read (especially since it’s by my favorite science blogger, Brian Switek). But I’ll summarize, too.

Considering not just how many mammal species survived, but what kind of mammals survived, the researchers noticed a trend. If the species was declared extinct — which is usually official 50 years after a confirmed sighting, or after an exhaustive search — because of human hunting, it was probably truly extinct. Likewise for death by invasive species. But if habitat loss was the murder weapon, it was more than likely that a few members of the species survived somewhere. If that’s the case now, it means it’s possible to save them.

A good deal of my blog is dedicated to cryptozoology, the study of hidden animals. Cryptozoology isn’t just unicorns and Sasquatch. It’s also the search for hypothetical animals, as well as the search for animals that used to exist but haven’t been seen in some time. Is it largely a sensationalist pseudoscience? Sure. Do cryptozoologists waste their time and reputations hunting chupacabras for the benefit of History Channel specials? Absolutely. But when it comes down to finding real-life hidden animals — like, say, the possible one-third of “extinct” mammals out there — it’s a good idea to have a little faith in folklore and trust that maybe the illiterate villager who saw the shadow of an animal out of the corner of his eye is telling the truth. That’s precisely how the Horton Plains Slender Loris was finally rediscovered last summer, after having been declared extinct in 1937.

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Silent Island

When writing about the Lesser Short-Tailed Bat colonizing New Zealand 30 million years ago, I wrote it from the perspective of the bat. But no species can colonize an inhabited island peacefully. The bat might think of itself as a pilgrim, while the native birds consider it an invader. And as humans invade and colonize each other’s lands by caravan, ship, and airplane, a form of animal imperialism has followed us.

Guam is a South Pacific island that was, at one point, idyllic. We cannot know what the ecosystem of Guam looked like 4,000 years ago when it was first colonized by humans, but when the dust and blood settled over the millenia, those early pioneers forged a sort of peace accord with the island, and the ecosystem re-calibrated itself to accommodate them. These people became the Chamorro, a culture based on the principles of respect and reciprocity. They had a mythology, but no religion; ancestor veneration took the place of deity worship. (Although there is one 17th century account of human sacrifice.)

Then, in the 15th century, the Spanish invaded. To say nothing of the misery visited on the people, the island was invaded by the rats, pigs, dogs, chickens, deer, and water buffalo the Spaniards brought with them; an ecological blitzkrieg. When control of Guam was passed to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War of 1898, we established a major naval base there (and introduced the poisonous and insatiable cane toad), which in turn was captured by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. The Chamorro suffered torture, beheadings, and rape under Japanese occupation, and the island suffered the Giant African Snail which devastated the island’s crops. This is not to mention all of the invasive plants and pathogens introduced, which starved the local wildlife and pushed out the native vegetation. Then, in the 1950’s, when the island was again under the stars & stripes, we struck what could be the finishing blow.

This is the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher. No picture I could find could do justice to the magnificent plumage of this bird, which I have seen at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. It behaves very much like North America’s belted kingfisher: furtive, with a raspy, laughing call, and specialized for diving into the water to catch small fish. It was once found all over the island. Now the kingfisher, like most of the birds on Guam, is extinct in the wild, the victim of American imperialism and a little brown snake.

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The Lucky Ones

The Place: Le Grand Casino of Monte Carlo in the fabulously wealthy Principality of Monaco. The Date: August 18th, 1913. On the blood red carpet, tuxedoed dukes and oligarchs from every civilized country mingle at poker tables as green and manicured as estate lawns. They wear white ties and colognes, pince-nezzes and bryl-creme. The casino babbles in French and English, German, Italian, and Arabic, accented by the clinking of glasses and the soft tumble of dice. If you were to listen past the gilded white noise of the room, you could hear the snicker of a roulette wheel, and a growing commotion rising from it. Each time the whir of the spinning ball dies into a rattle, voices crash against the walls, each time a little louder, then ebb back as the whir starts again. This table is having a “streak;” the ball has landed on black ten times in a row. As the disbelief and the voices of gamblers gets louder, the table draws a larger crowd. Each time the ball lands on black, a single word is cried out in every language: “Красный! Červená! Rosso! Rouge! Rood! Red! Red! Red!” By the time the ball has landed 15 times on black, people are climbing over each other to thrust their money on the red squares, doubling and tripling their stakes. No one can believe the ball could land on black now 20 times in a row. Even the croupier is sweating, looking apologetically at the gentlemen as he takes their chips. By the time the streak is over, the ball has landed on black 26 consecutive times, and the casino has made millions.

The Place: The beach at Rancho Nuevo, Mexico, in the northern state of Tamaulipas. The Date: August 18th, 1913. The morning sun glints off the Gulf of Mexico like a knife. A slight breeze makes the palms crash their heads together in the yellow air. The ocean murmurs to the trees, the trees hush the ocean, and the sucking silence between them is cut only by the whinny of a distant horse. If you were to listen past the gilded white noise of the beach, you would hear a different sound, like a brushstroke on canvas. It is a newly-hatched Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle digging her way out of the soft white sand. Her flippers trace a fish-scale pattern on the beach as she dashes for the ocean… and is snatched up by a seagull. Soon more turtles are emerging, climbing over each other to reach the relative safety of the waves. But the crabs and gulls and even a few hawks and foxes have arisen early to glut themselves on the hatchlings. It’s a riot of beaks and teeth and shells as 4.5 million baby turtles erupt from the sand, and the word for blood is called out in every language. Still, the predators cannot possibly catch every turtle, and most escape into the foam. For the next year, they’ll be hunted by every oceanic predator large enough to swallow them. Only 4,500 will survive to breed, the females returning to this very beach to lay their own eggs. Their chances are one in a thousand. They are the lucky ones.

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Third Eye

What is the “third eye”? Is it a mystical part of the brain that acts as a gateway to a higher consciousness? Is it a cheap cliche used by hackneyed slam poets? Well, yes… at least to the last one. The concept of a “third eye” dates back thousands of years in the Hindu tradition, as a literal and figurative organ which allows one to “see” the future, auras, and the face of true knowledge. But before you start trying to access your sixth chakra to achieve clairvoyance, it might be helpful to talk to an animal that actually has a third eye, and ask it what it’s good for.


I will make your head explode with my mind.

The tuatara, a reptile endemic to New Zealand, is a curiosity in every right. Though it looks like a lizard, it’s not; its lineage can be traced back to the age of dinosaurs, far before the modern lizards and snakes. It is the only survivor of the genus Sphenodontia, which had its heyday 200 million years ago, and has been hiding out with the kiwis ever since. Tuataras have an incredibly slow metabolism which has two main effects: they are the slowest-growing reptiles, needing about 65 years to reach their maximum size, and they also tolerate cold better than any other reptile. Their optimum temperature is between 60-70 degrees F, but they still function at a chilly 40 degrees F. Their ears have no earholes nor eardrums, and their teeth are not separated, but rather two interlocking bandsaws of bone. But the strangest thing about their anatomy may be the hidden eye on their forehead.

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The Africa Inside Texas

Driving across West Texas recently, I passed quiet a few farms that deal in “exotic animals.” One had a rhino on the sign. It was no mystery to me what these farms were raising rhinos for.

The Scimitar Oryx once lived across the vast Sahara and the steppes of Northern Africa. Their four-foot horns are capable of killing lions, making them tough prey. What makes them tougher are their unique adaptations for surviving without water for weeks at a time. Instead of storing water, like a camel, they conserve water using hyper-efficient kidneys, and the ability to raise their own body temperature up to 116 degrees F to avoid sweating. That’s what I call hot-blooded.

Evolution gave the Scimitar Oryx the power to survive one of the harshest environments on Earth. But they’re not bulletproof. Mankind hunted them for their horns until they were extinct in the wild. There hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of them in Africa in 15 years. And the year they went functionally extinct, they counted 1,250 Scimitar Oryx in zoos and nature parks. They also counted 2,145 oryx in big game ranches in Texas. That’s right; there are more Scimitar Oryxes in Texas than in Africa and all the zoos in the world combined.

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