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Recent and Current Extinction Rates

6 April, 2016 - 17:26

A sixth, or Holocene, mass extinction has mostly to do with the activities of Homo sapiens. There are numerous recent extinctions of individual species that are recorded in human writings. Most of these are coincident with the expansion of the European colonies since the 1500s.

One of the earlier and popularly known examples is the dodo bird. The dodo bird lived in the forests of Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. The dodo bird became extinct around 1662. It was hunted for its meat by sailors and was easy prey because the dodo, which did not evolve with humans, would approach people without fear. Introduced pigs, rats, and dogs brought to the island by European ships also killed dodo young and eggs (Figure 21.14).

Figure 21.14 The dodo bird was hunted to extinction around 1662. (credit: Ed Uthman, taken in Natural History Museum, London, England)

Steller’s sea cow became extinct in 1768; it was related to the manatee and probably once lived along the northwest coast of North America. Steller’s sea cow was discovered by Europeans in 1741, and it was hunted for meat and oil. A total of 27 years elapsed between the sea cow’s first contact with Europeans and extinction of the species. The last Steller’s sea cow was killed in 1768. In another example, the last living passenger pigeon died in a zoo in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1914. This species had once migrated in the millions but declined in numbers because of overhunting and loss of habitat through the clearing of forests for farmland.

These are only a few of the recorded extinctions in the past 500 years. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) keeps a list of extinct and endangered species called the Red List. The list is not complete, but it describes 380 vertebrates that became extinct after 1500 AD, 86 of which were driven extinct by overhunting or overfishing.