Paid Environmental / Conservation

The Extinction of Species: Historical Examples and Lessons Learned

extinctionspecies losswildlife managementhabitat preservationinvasive speciesclimate changeconservationbiodiversitylessons learnedhistory

This podcast explores historical examples of species extinction and draws lessons from these unfortunate events for a more sustainable future.


Welcome to Listen Learn Pods! Today, we embark on a journey through time to explore the extinction of species, understanding historical examples and learning valuable lessons from these unfortunate events.

When it comes to extinction, it's crucial to recognize that it's a natural part of Earth's history. Species come and go, with new ones evolving and others disappearing as we move through the epochs. What is alarming about the current rate of extinctions, however, is that human activity plays a significant role in driving many of these losses. By diving into past extinctions, we can begin to recognize parallels and learn how to stop or at least mitigate these issues.

The extinction events we will discuss today all vary in nature, but it's essential to understand that they often overlap significantly in terms of causation. For instance, habitat loss, invasive species, and human-related activities can overlap when analyzing the reasons behind a specific extinction.

Let us time travel back to 1914 when the last known individual of the passenger pigeon died in captivity. The extinction of the passenger pigeon can indeed be considered one of the most famous and tragic in history. At their height, passenger pigeons were arguably the most abundant bird in North America, with their population estimated to have been as high as five billion individuals. So, what happened?

The reasons behind the passenger pigeon's extinction stem directly from human activities such as overhunting, habitat destruction, and proliferation of disease. Passenger pigeons were considered a source of low-cost protein and were hunted en masse to provide food for the growing cities in North America. Individuals were also captured and sold as pets or fancy poultry. The widespread deforestation and habitat destruction for agriculture and material resources also contributed to the loss of food sources and breeding sites for these birds.

The sad tale of the passenger pigeon leaves us thinking about the potentially dire consequences of overexploiting wildlife and the importance of habitat preservation.

Another famous example of species extinction is the dodo, a flightless bird native to the island of Mauritius. The dodo fell victim to a combination of human activity and the introduction of invasive species that ultimately led to their extinction. By 1681, the dodo was considered extinct and has since become a symbol of human-caused extinction.

Sailors visiting the island discovered the dodo, and they began hunting them for food. Though their flesh was often not considered palatable, they were primarily taken for their scarcity and rarity. The hunting pressures of humans were then compounded when Europeans introduced invasive species such as rats, pigs, and monkeys to the island. These species preyed upon the dodo's eggs and chicks, and also destroyed natural vegetation that served as food sources and shelter for these birds. The dodo's fate shows the dangerous impact humans can have on isolated ecosystems and the threat posed by invasive species.

Moving on, another heartbreaking example of extinction is the story of the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf. This marsupial carnivore was native to Australia and Tasmania, with the last known individual dying in captivity in 1936. The extinction of the thylacine was largely due to hunting pressures from European settlers, driven by a fear of the thylacine's predation on livestock, habitat destruction, and disease.

During the early 20th century, the Australian government even offered a bounty for killing thylacines, which further intensified the continued decimation of their populations. The story of the thylacine highlights that irrational fears, lack of understanding, and relentless persecution can all play a role in the extinction of a species.

One more example worth mentioning is the golden toad, an amphibian native to the cloud forests of Costa Rica. This brightly colored, small toad disappeared in the 1980s, and by 1990, it was officially declared extinct. The golden toad's extinction is a more recent example of how none are spared from the threats that continue to drive species loss today. Climate change may have played a major role in the loss of this beautiful amphibian. Changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, along with the loss of its cloud forest habitat played a significant part in pushing this species over the edge.

By examining these historical examples, we can gain insights into the underlying causes and human contributions to extinctions. The lessons to be learned from these stories are many, and some include:

1. The essential need to protect natural habitats, as it is the foundation for preserving biodiversity.
2. The critical need for proper management of wildlife and understanding of management practices, which involves not just hunting, but taking into consideration the complex interactions between species and ecosystems.
3. The urgent need to address climate change, as it can heavily impact ecosystems on a global scale and create ripple effects that contribute to species loss.
4. The importance of recognizing and curbing the spread of invasive species, which can devastate native populations and dramatically alter ecosystems.

However, it's also important to acknowledge that not all hope is lost: conservation efforts have at times been successful in saving species from the brink of extinction. By focusing on these positive case studies, we can better understand and implement strategies to preserve the planet's biodiversity - because once a species is lost, it's gone forever.

In summary, the tales of extinct species provide us with valuable examples of how human activities have driven and continue to drive species loss. However, by learning from these historical accounts and understanding the underlying causes, we can work towards a more responsible and sustainable future for all of Earth's inhabitants. Together, let's strive to learn from the past and create a future where extinctions are no longer written into our history.