Extinction Insight Human Discovery and Extinction

In this chapter, you can read about some of the animals that have become extinct in the last 500 years or so. Many of these were birds, and many inhabited islands that only became known to Europeans during the last five centuries. Although the intensity of human movement started to really increase five centuries ago, migration and exploration are innate facets of human nature and are things we have always done. The search for food and companions and simple curiosity has driven us to look over the next hill or mountain range at what lies beyond. The ability to construct seafaring craft is likely a very ancient skill, and people have used boats and rafts to reach distant islands without knowing if there was any landmass to reach. This desire to move and explore is so ingrained in us that the bones of our ancestor Homo erectus have been found in Indonesia, thousands of miles from where the species originated—Africa. This was way before the age of trains, planes, and automobiles, and even horses, so our ancient ancestors dispersed largely by foot and, to a lesser extent, by seacraft. Modern man followed the same dispersal routes out of the ancestral homeland and eventually colonized the whole globe, apart from the poles.

The discovery of new lands was good for our species, but it has been incredibly bad for the animals with which we share the planet. Islands have been hit the hardest, particularly the ones that had been isolated long enough for their animal inhabitants to evolve traits suited to a predator-free environment such as flightlessness in birds. A huge number of islands were once home to flightless birds: Mauritius with the dodo, Madagascar with the elephant bird, and New Zealand with the moa. When humans discovered these islands, it was the beginning of the end for a wealth of species— animals that were perfectly adapted to their surroundings but powerless to resist humans— because of the animals that live with us and the habitat destruction we inevitably cause. The animals of larger landmasses were better placed to adapt to the human challenge as many of them could simply move into areas where humans had not reached. With this said, there is increasing evidence that human hunting and habitat destruction may have contributed to the extinction of the American and Australian megafauna. It is becoming increasingly clear that modern humans are the most destructive animals in earth's history.

Ever since humans started to spread around the globe, we have contributed to the rate of animal extinction, but this entered a new phase with the dawn of the new age: the era of discovery, when the wealthy courts of Europe funded expeditions using sailing ships in the hope of establishing trade routes and building empires. New lands were discovered every year for centuries, and this is the time during which animals like the dodo joined the roll call of extinction. Centuries later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the age of discovery moved into yet another phase, and we started to ask more and more questions about the world around us. Scientific methods brought order and classification to the natural world, and the natural historians were born. They wanted to name, number, and collect the natural world's treasures, and every expedition to far-off lands was incomplete without a zoologist, botanist, or geologist. Initial reports of unusual creatures were met with skepticism by the scientific community, but as specimens began to trickle back to the learned institutions of Europe, scientists realized that the earth was home f

Human Discovery and Extinction—Human exploration and discovery have been directly responsible for the extinction of many of the animals featured in this book. Few of these are better known than the dodo, a species that was wiped out in a little over 60 years. (Renata Cunha)

to a myriad of animal species, many of which were startlingly different to what they knew already. These new animals had to be collected and put on display. Live ones found their way into zoological gardens, and dead ones ended up stuffed or pickled in the museums that started to spring up all over Europe. This was an exciting time to be alive if you were a naturalist, but a very nervous one if you were an exotic, rare bird.

Museums and independently wealthy collectors would pay huge sums of money for specimens of rare animals. One of the most famous collectors was Lionel Walter Rothschild, a member of the Rothschild banking family, who devoted his life to the collection and study of nature. As a boy, he started off collecting butterflies, moths, and other insects, but he progressed on to larger animals, using his portion of the family fortune to secure rarities, especially birds. During his lifetime, Rothschild accumulated 2,000 mounted mammals, about 2,000 mounted birds, 2 million butterflies and moths, 300,000 bird skins, 144 giant tortoises, and 200,000 birds' eggs. He employed a small army of collectors to scour the far reaches of the globe for additions to his collections, and he was particularly keen to get his hands on species that had dwindled in numbers due to habitat destruction and human hunting and persecution. Rothschild was not alone as a fanatic collector of living things, and it is thought that together, these private collectors may have contributed to the extinction of several species, particularly birds that had already been pushed to the edge by human disturbance of their once pristine habitats.

Collecting still goes on today, and in some places, it is a real problem, but the tide of public opinion has turned against seeing stuffed animals in museums to appreciation of the living creatures in their natural environment. Sadly, the natural world is now confronted by the greatest man-made challenges: the spiraling population of our species and the wholesale destruction of habitats, both at a time when our understanding of the natural world has grown to a point where we can see the fragility of the world we live in and what we must do to save it.

Further Reading: Grayson, D. K. "The Archaeological Record of Human Impacts on Animal Populations." Journal of World Prehistory 15 (2001): 1-68; Grayson, D. K., and D.J. Meltzer. "Clovis Hunting and Large Mammal Extinction: A Critical Review of the Evidence."Journal of World Prehistory 16 (2002): 313-59; Grayson, D. K., and D.J. Meltzer. "A Requiem for North American Overkill." Journal of Archaeological Science 30 (2003): 585-93; Williams, J.R.S. "A Modern Earth Narrative: What Will Be the Fate of the Biosphere?" Technology in Society 22 (2000): 303-39.

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