Friday, November 11, 2011

Fun Friday Facts #16: Extinct Animals Edition

As you've no doubt figured out by now, it's Friday again. If you're still thinking it's Thursday, well, it's not.

This week, we'll be taking a look at some of the world's deadest animals. Such as:

1) The quagga is apparently what happens when you cross a zebra with a horse. It was, apparently, named after the sound it made.

Imagine it making that sound and try not to laugh.

The quagga is one of many animals hunted to extinction because for its hide, tasty flesh, and because it was in our freaking way, dang it. Wild quaggas were wiped out sometime in the 1870s, and the last captive one died on 12 August 1883. Naturalists of the time were a bit confused about zebras in general, because each zebra has its own unique pattern of stripes.

They're like snowflakes if snowflakes looked like horses. ~ Pharaoh Hound, Fir0002

As a result, they had a bit of a hard time classifying zebras into distinct species. So, the quagga has the distinction of being the first extinct animal to have its DNA analyzed. Genetecists at the Smithsonian Institution have determined that the quagga was not, in fact, a separate species. It was, just a really weird-looking zebra, so I should probably kick it off the list.

Get out of here, you.

Scientists with the Quagga Project are now trying to bring the quagga back. They're going to do this by breeding weird-looking zebras together until they get some that look weird in just the right way. As of 2005, they've managed to come up with a zebra foal that sort of looks a little bit like a quagga.

2) The aurochs is the ancestor of our domesticated cattle. It looked like a cow.

Surprisingly enough.

Aurochs were, however, much bigger than regular cows. The average bull was about 5 feet 10 inches (1.8 meters) tall at the shoulders, and holy sh*t, that's taller than me.

These ginormous cattle were native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. They were popular subjects for prehistoric cave paintings. Humans began domesticating them about 8,000 years ago. By the 13th century, the aurochs' massive range had dwindled to a small section of Eastern Europe. By the 17th century, the aurochs survived only in Poland. The royal family attempted to preserve the species by appointing gamekeepers to provide them with grazing lands. Hunting the aurochs was forbidden, on pain of death.

The last aurochs died in 1627, on a royal game preserve in the Jaktorow Forest. Her skull is on display in the Royal Armory museum in Stockholm, Sweden.

Because when you invade a country, you totally loot its giant cow skull.

3) Not so long ago, the passenger pigeon was one of the most numerous birds in North America. When European conquest (I mean, er, settlement) began, there were probably anywhere from three to five billion passenger pigeons in the US. As late as 1866, a flock of 3.5 billion birds was spotted passing over southern Ontario. The flock was said to be one mile (1.6 kilometers) wide and 300 miles (483 kilometers) long. It took 14 hours to pass overhead.

That is a lot of freaking birds.

The passenger pigeon died out because we hunted the f*ck out of it. Passenger pigeon meat became a popular food in the early 1800s, because their sheer numbers meant they were easy to hunt and cheap to buy. Professional hunters would find a colony of passenger pigeons and kill as many as 50,000 birds per day, selling the meat in the cities for food or fertilizer. Some trapped the birds alive to sell as shooting targets. Poor people, servants and slaves usually didn't get any other type of meat.

Unfortunately for them, passenger pigeons were extremely social creatures. Their colonies often covered hundreds of miles and included tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of birds. They nested communally and needed to gather together in huge numbers in order to breed. By the time it was realized that the passenger pigeon was going extinct, there weren't enough birds left to establish a breeding flock.

4) The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, went extinct in 1936. A few people have reported seeing them since then, and have even come up with grainy photographs and footage, but the continued existence of this ugly bugger remains unproven.

The thylacine is thought to have become extinct on mainland Australia in the 19th century, largely due to competition for food from dingoes and humans. It continued to thrive on the southern island of Tasmania until the 1930s. The thylacine was a carnivorous marsupial, and one of only two known marsupial species in which both male and female specimens have pouches.

The male used his to cover his nuts. I'm not joking.

These animals hunted at night, probably by ambush. Evidence suggests that a group of thylacines would single out a prey animal, then run it into exhaustion. Other thylacines would wait in the bushes, then leap out and kill the weakened prey. They may have hunted wallabies, wombats, birds, kangaroos and possums. The Tasmanian emu, one of its primary food sources, went extinct around 1850, and this may have contributed to the thylacine's own extinction.

For the most part, however, humans are blamed for eradicating the thylacine. Aren't we just awesome.

European farmers in Tasmania believed that thylacines were killing their sheep. As early as the 1830s, bounties were introduced. Other factors contributing to the thylacine's extinction are believed to include disease, extinction of the animal's prey species, and destruction of its habitat. A law to protect the thylacine was passed on 10 July 1936. The last wild thylacine was probably killed in 1930, but not to worry, we captured them on film. 

5) No list of extinct animals would be complete without the dodo bird, possibly the most widely-known extinct animal of all time. These flightless birds lived on the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. Their extinction was entirely our fault.

As usual.

The dodo was a ground-nesting bird, about 3.3 feet (1 meter) tall, and weighing about 44 pounds (20 kilos). It tasted like chicken.

No, actually, it tasted like crap.

Dodos enjoyed a life free of predators on their island paradise, so they never developed that crucial survivial instinct known as common sense. When humans arrived on Mauritius, the dodos showed no fear of them, or their animal friends. While it's commonly believed that the dodos were hunted into extinction, please remember that they tasted like crap. It's more likely that the dogs, cats, pigs and rats humans brought to Mauritius were responsible for killing off the dodos, both by eating them and by destroying their nests. The official extinction date for the dodo is 1693, a little more than 100 years after the species was discovered.

This is why we can't have nice things.