Countless books have been written about the dinosaurs, the reptiles that ruled the earth for about 160 million years, yet remarkably few books have been written about the many strange, fierce, and enormous beasts that have disappeared in the time humans and our recent ancestors have been around. The earth is certainly a poorer place for their passing, but it's fascinating to think that our forebears knew these animals—even worshipped them and hunted them. Extinct Animals is an exploration of these creatures, from the giant, flesh-eating birds and saber-toothed marsupials of South America to the golden toad of Costa Rica, which became extinct as recently as 1989.
A book on extinct animals would not be complete without a little about the process of extinction itself, and so in the introduction, you find out about how the earth has been rocked by numerous mass extinction events. The last of these, the seventh extinction, is happening right now as a result of the unchecked growth of the human population and the habitat destruction that follows in the wake of what we call progress. Following the introduction are 65 vignettes, each of which present a different extinct animal. You will not find an exhaustive account of all the animals that have disappeared from our planet in the last couple of million years because such a book would be immense, and all that we know of many extinct animals is based on fragmentary fossils. The focus of this book is those extinct beasts for which there are historical accounts of the living animal, a detailed fossil record, or scant remnants that indicate a truly incredible creature.
The audience for Extinct Animals is anyone with an interest in zoology, earth's remarkable recent past, or the far-reaching consequences of an expanding human population. The main purpose of Extinct Animals is to present what we know about the lives of animals that have disappeared forever in a way that just about anyone can read and understand. Textbooks are full of fascinating information, but all too often, they are inaccessible to general audiences. This book provides a bridge to those resources for anyone who has even the slightest interest in the world around him and what it was once like.
Along with the individual vignettes are a number of entries that describe some of the discoveries and concepts that are crucial to understanding how life on earth has changed in the last couple of million years. These include the amazing bone deposits of Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles, the ice ages, and the human age of discovery, which has seen humans exploring every corner of the globe, often to the detriment of native fauna.
Wherever possible, I have tried not to use jargon. There is a whole dictionary of specialized zoological and paleontological terms, which can sometimes be confusing or difficult to say. I have tried to write in more general terms without using this specialized language. However, there is a glossary at the end of the book to explain any jargon that was unavoidable. For those readers keen to trawl the Web for extra information, the best way is to type the Latin name, or perhaps the common name, into a Web search engine. The amount of information on the Web today is such that there will be numerous pages on most of the animals in this book, but only those sites ending in .gov or .edu are likely to carry information that has been thoroughly researched and edited.
In this book, at the end of many entries, there is a list of resources for further reading. These lists, as well as the selected bibliography at the end of the book, include textbooks and journal articles that can be found in any decent library. In addition to the Web and books, you can find more about the animals featured in this book by visiting natural history museums. A list of some of the museums where you can see skeletons and reconstructions of many extinct animals can be found at the back of this book.
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