June 27 – Gone Forever

Today’s Factismal: The Western Black Rhinoceros was declared to be extinct today.

If there is one constant in biology, it is change. Indeed, change is the essence of evolution as one species develops and another withers away. Over the history of the Earth, most species survive for less than a million years; very few make it more than 10,000,000 (some ants, certain fish, and lots of bacteria). But though extinction may be inevitable, it doesn’t make it any better when a species vanishes, never to be seen again.

This is the only way you'll ever see an extinct animal (My camera)

This is the only way you’ll ever see an extinct animal
(My camera)

The causes for extinction are as varied as the species. Sometimes the animal drives itself into extinction by polluting its environment, as most stromatolites did 1,250 million years ago. Sometimes the animal is replaced by a faster or stronger or smarter competitor, as happened to the trilobites some 300 million years ago. Sometimes the animal’s food supply changes, as happened to some dinosaurs when grasses displaced ferns and cycads 125 million years ago. Sometimes the environment changes too much, too fast, for the animal to adapt, as happened to megaladon when the modern era of ice ages began 1.5 million years ago. And sometimes, the animal is beset by a predator that manages to kill them faster than they can reproduce, happened to the black rhinoceros.

A black rhinoceros in the wild (Image courtesy National Geographic)

A black rhinoceros in the wild
(Image courtesy National Geographic)

The rhinoceros has always been a hunted animal. Like all rhinos, it was a large, browsing animal that protected itself using its speed and a sharp horn that doubled as an all-purpose tool for digging up food and breaking branches. The western black rhino actually had two horns (and sometimes three), with mates being selected on the basis of the size of the two horns (bigger really was better). Those horns turned out to be its downfall as many humans thought that ingesting rhino horn powder would make them better lovers; according to their wives, the opposite was true. The western black rhino was hunted into extinction by poachers with numbers falling from a high of a few hundred in 1980 to five in 2001.

A colorful iguana in Nigeria (not the kind of animal mammalMap wants) (My camera)

A colorful iguana agama in Nigeria (not the kind of animal mammalMap wants)
(My camera)

And the western black rhinoceros wasn’t the only animal facing extinction; the other rhinoceroses are also critically endangered. And one way to save them is with citizen science, like that offered by mammalMap. Using camera traps and other monitoring methods, the scientists at mammalMap are trying to learn the range and distribution of every large mammal species in Africa. So if you’ve got photographs showing where and when you saw an African mammal, submit it to them!

10 thoughts on “June 27 – Gone Forever

  1. this is so sad! we just discussed about natural selection and adaptation in my Ecology class this afternoon. 😦 i guess black rhino was slow to adapt while the change happened fast.

  2. There are no iguanas in Africa. There are in Madagascar, but I don’t regard that as part of Africa, as apparently some people do.

  3. Pingback: September 11 – Gone forever – Little facts about science

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