Weird Animal Question of the Week

What’s Your Favorite Extinct Species? Scientists’ Top Picks

Dodos and dinos are emblems of extinction, but there are many other unsung species no longer among us.

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The Carolina parakeet went extinct in 1918. This specimen lies in eternal slumber at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Dozens of species likely go extinct each day, but how many do most of us remember?

Besides dinosaurs and the famously flightless dodo, probably only a few.

That's why Weird Animal Question of the Week—always a fan of the underdog—tackled Jaiden Gwynn’s question: “What are some animals that have gone extinct, either in the wild or completely, that we don’t hear or think about often?” 

Gone … and Forgotten

Mark Carnall, collections manager at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, has a few favorites. (Read about one National Geographic photographer's take on exotic and extinct taxidermy.)

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Thylacines, often erroneously called Tasmanian tigers, went extinct in 1936. This pair was photographed at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania, Australia, in 1933.

• The fantastic-looking carnivorous marsupial called the thylacine was native to Australia and New Guinea. The striped, dog-size mammal declined due in part to hunting, and the last captive animal died in 1936. Some Australians believe the thylacine still exists, though—enough that in 2005, an Australian magazine offered a million-dollar reward for anyone who could prove that creature still exists.

• In 2012, Japanese authorities declared the Japanese river otter extinct. Last spotted in the wild in 1979, the aquatic animal suffered due to widespread hunting and loss of habitat. (Also see "China’s Rare River Dolphin Now Extinct.")

• The Carolina parakeet, eastern North America's only native parrot species, went extinct in 1918 when the last parakeet died at the Cincinnati Zoo. In the 1800s its spectacular feathers became popular for women's hats, a demand that ultimately led to the bird's demise.

D’oh! D’oh! 

We should give a nod to the dodo, native of Mauritius, and explain how it became the emblem of extinction.

Part of the reason is because the dodo may have been the first species humans killed off, and superlatives are easy to remember, Carnall notes.

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Extinction’s poster child: A dodo skeleton and model on display at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Other factors, Carnall notes, include the many photogenic sketches of the bird made by sailors, a unusually high number of fossilized remains, and British anatomist Richard Owen's interest in the bird.

The famous Oxford dodo, which contains the only remaining soft tissue of a dodo, inspired Lewis Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland character, giving the dodo pop culture recognition that continues to this day.

Big Birds and Big Cats

While we're on the subject, many more extinct birds have flown under the radar.

For instance, the Rodrigues solitaire, an extinct bird very like the dodo, isn't exactly a household name, though DNA tests showed that it and the dodo shared three pigeon species as their closest relatives. 

John Klicka, of Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, made note of the 11-foot-tall (3.4-meter-tall) elephant bird, whose egg was bigger than a human head. (Related: "Elephant Bird Egg Auction Inspires Hunt.")

The behemoth died out due to hunting and habitat loss a few hundred years ago, he says. 

Another big bird that's no longer with us is the great auk—a favorite of Bill Rapley, the Toronto Zoo's executive director of conservation.

These 11-pound (5-kilogram) flightless birds made quite a spectacular sight as they gathered in giant colonies in the North Atlantic—until hunting wiped them out, Rapley says. The last pair were seen in Newfoundland in 1852. (Read how some scientists hope to bring back the passenger pigeon.)

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Since 1992, more than 300,000 captive Puerto Rican crested toad tadpoles have been reintroduced into the wild.

Rapley adds that extinct cheetah- and lion-like cats lived in North America until the late Pleistocene, from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. 

The American “cheetah,” Miracinonyx trumani, was genetically closer to the mountain lion, which, along with the jaguar, still lives in the Americas

Back From the Brink

On a more upbeat note, Rapley notes that scientists worldwide are breeding threatened species in captivity and reintroducing their offspring back into the wild. Those include the Vancouver Island marmot and the Puerto Rican crested toad.

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 By breeding Vancouver Island marmots in captivity, scientists hope the species won't go the way of the dodo.

Here's hoping the way of the dodo becomes a road less traveled. 

Tell us: What's your favorite extinct species? 

Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday. If you have a question about the weird and wild animal world, tweet me, leave me a note or photo in the comments below, or find me on Facebook.

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