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24 August 2016

Arctic Animals Lost to Extinction

It is not news that climate change is having a big impact on the Arctic. Indeed, it has been warming at an alarming rate, on average twice as fast as other parts of the planet.  Ice sheets are thinning, with huge amounts of ice melting into the ocean every year. The ocean itself is facing problems too, as it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and is as a result becoming more acidic. Some experts estimate that the condition of the Arctic Ocean will be so altered by 2050 that it will not support many shell-building species.

Numerous reports indicate that climate change is pushing the planet to its limits, and preventing the Arctic from carrying out the critical role it plays in keeping Earth at the right temperature. Its functions include holding greenhouse gases in its permafrost layer and controlling global ocean circulation.

Reports also show that animals will be hit first. As shifts occur in their habitats, the wildlife of the Arctic is being forced to adapt if they are to survive. Already many species have changed their behaviour, and have been moving further north or into deeper waters. Birds have started nesting, breeding and migrating earlier in the year to accommodate the unseasonably early springs that come their way.

One thing is clear: only the most adaptable species have a chance at survival.

Species with very specific eating habits and living conditions, such as the koala which is dependent on eucalyptus, are expected to become extinct first. As their habitats disappear and food chains are disrupted, creatures that are not resourceful may well die out.

Perhaps even more sadly, many species have become extinct due to more direct intervention by man in the natural order. Excessive hunting has historically been a major way in which humans have changed the wildlife landscape, and it takes place over the entire surface of the planet.

Here is a round-up of some of the Arctic animals that have been lost to extinction, old and new.

The Great Auk

Great auks were the first birds to be called penguins, although they are not related to modern day penguins. They were flightless birds with black backs and white bellies, which grew to around 80cm tall, weighing about 5 kgs.

Their plumage changed slightly with the seasons. During the summer months, the great auk had a white patch over each eye, which grew to a band of white across both eyes in the winter period.

Great auks were powerful swimmers, though clumsy on land, and social creatures which lived in big colonies and mated with a partner for life.

They were important creatures in many Native American cultures, and it was a custom to be buried with great auk bones. European hunters drastically reduced numbers, especially since great auk down was in high demand in Europe up in the 16th century.

When scientists realised that the species was endangered, hunters rushed out to get their hands on the few remaining, as they had become a valuable and rare commodity.

The last two confirmed specimens of great auk were killed in July 1844, off the coast of Iceland, which could well have eliminated the last breeding attempt of the species.

The Woolly Mammoth

One of the more well-known extinct species, this creature was an ice age-adapted giant who was not to be messed with.

It is thought to have diverged from other mammoth species around 400,000 years ago, and disappeared around 10,000 years ago. The mammoth coincided with early humans, who used the tusks of the creature to make tools, art and shelters. Some even think that the planning, thought and preparation involved in hunting mammoths was a major landmark in human development and responsible for moving us along to civilisation.

While roughly the same size as an African elephant, they were more closely related to Asian elephants. The mammoth shared the latter’s small ears which, along with a small tail, reduced heat loss and the chances of frostbite.

Mammoths’ coats of hair were very effective at keeping them warm in icy conditions. The coats consisted of thick, coarse hair of varying length, much longer on the underside and flanks, which could measure around a metre in length, and a dense layer of curlier under-wool. Gene analysis suggests that the beast could have had dark or light colouring, although light would have been far rarer.

Palaeontologists have found that you can count the years of life on a mammoth’s tusk, much like a tree. But instead of just one line per year, tusks have smaller lines for months and weeks of life, enabling researchers to tell exactly when the animal died. They can also tell how healthy the beast was at each stage. Healthier times are indicated by thicker rings, when the tusk grew better and stronger.

Depictions of the woolly mammoth in the form of cave paintings, engravings and sculptures are very common – there are more than five hundred known to us today. It is the third most depicted animal in art of the period, after the horse and bison.

The Eskimo Curlew

This curlew has been known by several names, including prairie pigeon, fute, little curlew, doe-bird, and doughbird. They were small birds, only around 30 cm long, whose diet consisted mostly of berries and little insects.

Their colouring was distinctive, with mottled brown feathering on the top, and light brown underneath, showing flashes of cinnamon wing linings in flight. They had a long bill that curved downwards and may have given them their Latin name, which means ‘crescent’.

These birds were usually killed en route, when they would stop over in North American coastlines to rest during their long migration flight paths from South America to the Arctic.

At the peak of its hunting popularity, in the late 1800s, it is estimated that two million of the birds were killed each year. Unsurprisingly, the numbers of Eskimo curlew rapidly declined to endangered status, despite having been one of the most common birds on the continent just a century before.

Nowadays, the bird is thought to be extinct, but hasn’t quite been 100% ruled out. Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and the United States list the curlew as a protected species, but it’s been decades since the last confirmed sighting.

The Woolly Rhino

Less famous than his mammoth counterpart, the woolly rhino is thought to have appeared around 350,000 years ago and survived until a relatively recent 10,000 years ago.

We have a pretty good idea of what these beasts were like because of how well their bodies were preserved in the cold, salty, oily ground, which slows decomposition right down. A complete female carcass was found in Ukraine in 1929, and there have been other mummified specimens found since.

They were a bit larger than the modern white rhino, around two metres tall, but weighing up to three tonnes. They had stocky bodies, thick legs, long fur, a broad front lip, and two horns – a large one at the end of its nose, and a smaller one between its eyes. The abrasion marks on the underside of the horns suggest that they used them to rub into the ground, possibly displacing snow and ice to find grassy food underneath. Or maybe the rubbing was part of a ritual or mating display. 

In 19th century Russia, rhino horns were found, but they weren’t identified as such, instead believed to be the claws of giant ancient birds.

The Procolophon, or Arctic Lizard

This prehistoric reptile became extinct in the later Triassic period, which means it lived around 250 to 240 million years ago. It is thought there were at least eight different species of ‘arctic lizard’.

The reptile grew to around 30cm and had a solid skull with a blunt, short front. It had big eyes, peg-like teeth for crushing its food, and a backward-facing cheek spike, which may have been used for muscle attachment. Its nasal opening was very close to its mouth, and it had short, thick legs which don’t look very speedy. It is more likely that it was a burrower.

The Nanuqsaurus, or Polar Bear Lizard

A relative of the T-Rex, fossils belonging to this creature were only discovered three decades ago, and not that much is known about it.

Its name is formed by the Iñupiaq ‘nanuq’,meaning ‘polar bear’, and the Greek ‘saurus’, which means ‘lizard’.

The distinctive ridge on its skull indicates relation to the mighty T-Rex, but it is only half the size, which has led to it becoming known as a tiny T-Rex. Especially since it took the scientist examining the remains a while before he realised he was looking at a new species, and not just a young specimen.

Its hips were about 6.5 feet from the ground, and its body measured almost 23 feet from tooth to tail. This sounds quite big, but compared to the T-Rex, the hips of which sat 13 feet in the air, it is quite little. Its small size is thought to have been adapted to harsh Arctic temperatures, as it conserves body heat and also could mean it survived better than a larger animal which would need a lot more food to sustain it.

The polar bear lizard lived in Northern Alaska over 66 million years ago, and palaeontologists hope that more expeditions to the Arctic will yield more fossils of this creature to study. 

Naomi Pyburn

Naomi is an English graduate with an itch to write. Her free time is spent blogging, reading feminist writing, cycling, cooking and managing her food Instagram account. Her not-so secret talent is the ability to nap anywhere.