I’ve done my favourite fossils before, but here are some more recent extinct animals. There are lots of them – did you know that statistically speaking every species that has ever existed is extinct? Basically there have been so many millions that all the plant and animal species alive today are a tiny, insignificant fraction. Obviously pretty significant to us, but not to the planet. So here are some that used to be around, some co-existed with people, some may have been wiped out by people, but we’re not always to blame.
- Diprotodon – a giant relative of the wombat, they grazed on the Australian grasslands during the Pleistocene. The largest marsupial to ever live. (Also shown above)
- Tasmanian tiger – The largest marsupial carnivore survived on Tasmania because the dingo didn’t make it there. Unfortunately once Europeans and dogs got there it didn’t last much longer.
- Blauwbok – A possibly blue antelope from Southern Africa, this has the distinction of being the first recorded mammal extinction in modern times. Humans may have finished them off but with their extremely restricted range they were already on the way to becoming extinct.
- Quagga – the fourth zebra, it had stripes on the front that faded to brown at the back. There have been attempts to try to re-breed them using their close relatives.
- Mammoth – the classic woolly elephant, there have been different species of mammoths linked with each of the past ice ages. Humans finished the latest ones off, but they wouldn’t have lasted in a warmer world. We don’t just have fossil mammoths, actual frozen bodies have been found.
- Moa – a giant flightless bird from New Zealand up to 2.5m tall. Apart from a few bats New Zealand doesn’t have mammals, so all their ecological niches were filled by birds. Moas were large herbivores, and there was an eagle large enough to hunt them, the Haast eagle.
- Aurochs – Is it extinct? Or just domesticated? Aurochs were giant cattle, and the source of most of today’s domestic cattle. They continued to exist as wild cousins for thousands of years in Europe and were probably the same species although now of course we can’t tell definitively.
- Smilodon – the sabre-toothed tiger was not a tiger! It belonged to another sub-family of cats from the Americas and lived during the Pleistocene. It was extremely heavily built for power rather than speed, and could have dealt with the giant prey animals found during the ice age.
- Dodo – A type of flightless giant pigeon. This one is wholly blamed on humans, they developed on Mauritius, another island without mammals. They were safe until rats and sailors came.
- Madagascan elephant birds – Another giant flightless bird related to moas and modern ostriches, emus and kiwis. They were over 3m tall and weighed up to 400kg. They were probably killed by humans, through direct hunting or taking their eggs.
- Ground Sloths – this actually includes several families and over 80 genera. They are interesting because they were a successful southern group in the interchange between the completely different faunas of North and South America. The southern animals developed from the ones on the supercontinent Gondwanaland and the northern animals developed on Laurasia.
- Megalodon – similar to a great white shark but far, far larger, Megalodon was probably between 15-20m long. This makes it about twice as long as the modern whale shark, and possibly the biggest fish ever. The red and grey are estimates of how big it was, green is a great white and purple is a whale shark.
- Giant Monitor Lizard – The largest lizard to ever live on land was found in Australia during the Pleistocene. They are close relatives of Komodo dragons but even bigger.
Did you notice the theme? There are two big reasons there are so many giants on this list. Firstly, there is something called ‘island gigantism,’ where the lack of predators on islands means herbivores can be much larger because they don’t have to hide. Unfortanately developing with a lack of predators means they don’t do well when humans arrive.
The other reason for so many giants is because of the Pleistocene. They were called the ‘megafauna’ and there is actually something called the ‘post-Pleistocene size reduction.’ Partly the large size was because of the weather, the Pleistocene had several ice ages and large bodies deal with cold better than small bodies. Environmental conditions were also right for large herbivores, which leads to large carnivores. The megafauna probably died out from a combination of hunting or other human impact and climate change.
There’s a interesting resource on extinct animals here at Enchanted Learning.
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