Monday, December 26, 2016

The Animals That Went Extinct in 2016

    It's a tradition here at Living Alongside Wildlife to gather in one place a summary of all the animals that went extinct in the previous year. Click here for the 201520142013, and 2012 editions. Let's get into it: 2015 was a pretty good year but our luck ran out in 2016.

Courtesy: Ian Bell/Queensland Department
of Environment and Heritage Protection
The Bramble Cays Melomys is likely extinct. The rodent lived on a small island off of Australia and was last seen in 2009. An intensive search effort in 2014 failed to turn one up. Importantly, the extinction of this small mammal is being attributed to climate change (the first mammal to receive this honor). Sea level rise resulted in the island being inundated with water several times which was bad news for both the animals and their habitat.

The San Cristóbal vermilion flycatcher, a bird only known from the Galapagos Islands and not seen since 1987, is extinct. The extinction of this bird was likely hastened by invasive rats that did not belong on the islands. Interestingly, we did not even know it was a species until after it was gone...It is the first bird species to have gone extinct in the Galapagos, I hope it's the last.

Courtesy: Atlanta Botanical Garden
The Rabb's Treefrog has gone extinct. We knew this one was coming for a while; it was last seen in the wilds of Panama in 2007. A captive animal has lived at the Atlanta Botanical Garden for years but he passed away late in September. The species probably went extinct because of a deadly fungus that is hammering amphibian populations in Central America: chytrid.

The Stephan's Riffle Beetle and Tatum Cave Beetle have gone extinct. These animals were only known from Arizona and Kentucky, respectively. Frustratingly, we've known for many years that these insects needed federal protection, but they never got it. Now they're gone forever. We can point to development of their habitat when figuring out why these species went extinct.

The Barbados Racer from, you guessed it, Barbados, is officially extinct. The last snake was seen in 1963 and likely disappeared because they were eaten by invasive mongoose.

Are you ready for this? Check out John Platt's excellent Extinction Countdown column to learn about the extinction of thirteen bird species: the Bermuda towhee (Pipilo naufragus), Réunion fody (Foudia delloni), Raiatea starling (also known as the “mysterious bird of Ulieta,” Aplonis ulietensis), Oʻahu ʻakepa (Loxops wolstenholmei), Laysan honeycreeper (Himatione fraithii), Mangareva reed warbler (Acrocephalus astrolabii), Aguijan reed warbler (Acrocephalus nijoi), least vermillion flycatcher (Pyrocephalus dubius), Foster’s reed-warbler (Acrocephalus musae), Marianne white-eye (Zosterops semiflavus), Kauia Akialoa (Akialoa stejnegeri), Lanai Akialoa (Akialoa lanaiensis), and the Pagan reed warbler (Acrocephalus yamashinae). None of these animals were recognized as being unique species until after they were gone. These were all island species and likely went extinct because of invasive predators.

Local Extinctions (Extirpations)

Tigers were declared extinct in Cambodia. This is something they've probably known for a few years at least (the last one was documented in 2007), but it was made official this year together with the announcement that they are planning a reintroduction effort. So, there is a silver lining.

Courtesy: Fernando Trujillo / WWF Greater Mekong
The Irrawaddy River Dolphin is functionally extinct in LaosThis means that some may be hanging on (like...three) but not enough for them to play an ecological role and probably not enough for them to hang around much longer. Fishing with gill-nets has likely played a large role in bringing about their dire status.

Once widespread through the deserts of Africa, we can look to the Addax Antelope for another possible example of a functional extinction. It seems as though there are only three wild animals left, in Niger. Poaching by soldiers has played a large role in knocking the species out. Fortunately there are a number of Addax in captivity - but work needs to be done before it would be safe to release any. 

Simply listing the species that went extinct in a given year is surprisingly tricky. Here are my answers to some commonly asked questions.

1. Just because we are always discovering "new" species doesn't mean we are offsetting extinctions somehow. When we discover a new species it is not actually new to Earth, it is just new to us. In other words, a new life form was not just created, we just happened to learn about it. There is a limited pool of species and the total number of species is decreasing. Evolution leads to the creation of new species but not on a time scale that is relevant to this conversation.

2. Human beings are one of the species on Earth. That does not mean that anything and everything we do is natural and therefore okay, even if it means causing species to go extinct. Other species have value and we should act accordingly to keep them around.

3. In my list I include species that went extinct in a globally significant region even if the species might still exist somewhere else. I think these local extinctions (called extirpations) are important. You might decide not to include them in your list of extinctions.

4. I include in my list species that went extinct in the wild, even if some individuals may still exist in captivity. See above.

5. It is often impossible to know when a species went biologically extinct. That is, there is often no way of knowing when the last individual of a given species dies. So, I often include in my list species that were declared extinct, this official designation often occurs many years after the last actual death. Again, you may not include them in your list of extinctions, but I do.

6. It is not unusual to "rediscover" a species that we thought was extinct. That is always great news. But, they are usually still critically endangered and often "really" go extinct afterwards.

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