7 Animals That Were the Last of Their Species

Rodrigo Buendia, AFP/Getty Images
Rodrigo Buendia, AFP/Getty Images

Every species that's ever gone extinct has had an endling: a specimen that represents the last living member of its kind. While countless endlings have blinked out of existence before we got a chance to document their species, others have gained worldwide recognition. Here are some of the most famous animals that signaled the end of their eras.

1. BENJAMIN THE THYLACINE

Thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers, were among the more unusual species to go extinct in the 20th century. The largest carnivorous marsupials of the modern age, they resembled dogs with the black stripes of a tiger and the pouch of a kangaroo. Their numbers dwindled as a result of hunting, disease, and loss of habitat following Australia's colonization, and their line finally came to an end with Benjamin, a thylacine who lived at the Hobart Zoo in Australia from 1933 to 1936. Benjamin was captured in the wild and died only a few years later, likely due to neglect. He famously appears in videos taken at the zoo, the last images ever recorded of his species. (Though some claim the species isn't extinct at all.)

2. BOOMING BEN THE HEATH HEN

The extinction of the heath hen came at the end of a hard-fought preservation effort, making its story even more tragic. After their habitat was changed by colonizers, heath hens, a subspecies of the greater prairie chicken, had all but disappeared from the northeastern U.S., and by 1870, the last birds that remained lived on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. But conservationists weren't about to let the species die out so easily: A preserve was created for the struggling population and by 1916 their numbers had grown from 100 to 2000. Unfortunately, all that progress was wiped out that May, when a wildfire burned through their habitat and led to the deaths of hundreds of birds. Despite efforts to rebuild the group, by 1929 only one heath hen remained: a male named Booming Ben. He was last spotted in 1932, which means that unlike other animals on this list, his death wasn't documented.

3. MARTHA THE PASSENGER PIGEON

Martha the passenger pigeon.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Long before Martha, passenger pigeons were the most abundant birds in North America, flying in flocks of hundreds of millions and eclipsing the sun for hours at a time. But by the turn of the 20th century, their population shrunk from roughly 6 billion to just a few captive specimens. Deforestation and game hunting helped fuel their dramatic decline. Martha was born in the Cincinnati Zoo and lived there for 29 years before passing in 1914, marking the end of her kind. After she died she was immediately placed on ice and shipped to the Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C., where her stuffed body can still be viewed today.

4. CELIA THE PYRENEAN IBEX

Celia's status as an endling is up for debate. Her body was found in Spain in 2000, leading biologists to declare the Pyrenean ibex extinct following years of hunting pressures and competition from domestic cattle. But that wasn't the end of her story: Using skin samples collected shortly after her death, scientists successfully cloned Celia in 2003, marking the first time a species was brought back from extinction. The cloned ibex died just minutes after it was born as a result of a lung defect, so sadly the effort to revive the Pyrenean ibex was short-lived.

5. TOUGHIE THE RABBS' FRINGE-LIMBED TREEFROG

Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog.
Brian Gratwicke, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Toughie wasn't just the last of the Rabbs' fringe-limbed tree frogs—he was the first of its kind ever discovered. Researchers found him in Panama in 2005 during a rescue effort to save wild amphibians from a deadly skin fungus spreading through the jungle. He was given a new home in Atlanta Botanical Garden and named Toughie—a suggestion that came from the garden's amphibian conservation coordinator's 2-year-old son. More frogs like Toughie were eventually found (or heard croaking in the wild), and the newly discovered species Ecnomiohyla rabborum was officially recognized in 2008. But the frogs died out within years, both in the wild and in captivity, and when Toughie died in 2016, the species likely died with him.

6. TURGI THE POLYNESIAN TREE SNAIL

The main reason for the Polynesian tree snail's demise? Other snails, by way of humans. When settlers brought African giant land snails to the Pacific Islands in the early 20th century for use as lawn ornaments, the local Partula turgida population suffered. A different type of carnivorous snail was later introduced in an effort to rein in the invasive species, but the plan hit a roadblock when the snails started eating the Polynesian tree snails instead of the intended targets. Turgi, the last of his kind, died in a plastic box at the London Zoo in 1996. His grave marker read "1.5 million years BC to January 1996," a nod to the longevity of the species he represented.

7. LONESOME GEORGE THE PINTA ISLAND TORTOISE

Lonesome George the Pinta Island tortoise.
Rodrigo Buendia, AFP/Getty Images

Few endlings (or at least few that we know of) held on to their status as the last of their species for as long as Lonesome George. The Pinta Island tortoise was first seen on his namesake island in the Galapagos in 1971. Initially, his discovery inspired new hope for the fate of the species: Before George, it was believed that the tortoise had been driven to extinction by hungry whalers and fur traders making stops at the island. Conservationists attempted to find a surviving female Pinta Island tortoise for George to mate with, and when that plan failed, they set him up in pens with female tortoises that were closely related to the species. These breeding efforts were unsuccessful, and in 2012, Lonesome George passed away in captivity on California's Santa Cruz Island without having produced any offspring. It's estimated that he had been over 100 at the time of his death. Today, his preserved remains are on display at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos.

5 Odd Suggestions About How To Fight the Dust Bowl

It was a disaster of mankind’s own making. By the 1930s, chronic overfarming in the Great Plains had devastated the native grasses that had held topsoils in place. As the plants were uprooted, the dirt dried and loosened, setting the stage for an environmental catastrophe.

In 1931, a drought hit the region—it would last eight years—and the exposed soil was blown away by a series of gigantic dust storms. Mountain-sized dirt clouds became a common sight all over Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Nobody who lived there had ever experienced anything like it: skies were blackened, barnyards were buried, and millions of farmers became homeless refugees. As the crisis raged on, people piped up with some wild ideas about how to finally put an end to this “dust bowl.” Here are five of the most peculiar suggestions.

1. PAVE OVER THE GREAT PLAINS.

Many well-meaning citizens assumed that if they could just cover up the loose dirt somehow, it would stop getting blown around so much. New Jersey’s Barber Asphalt Company reached out to the federal government and offered to pave over the afflicted area. Their price? Five dollars per acre. Sounds like a bargain—until you consider the fact that the dust bowl had engulfed around 100 million acres. Meanwhile, a Pittsburgh steel manufacturer wanted to install wire netting over multiple counties, and a company known as Sisalkraft proposed blanketing the ground with its rugged brand of waterproof paper. A similar idea involved laying concrete down over every field in the region and leaving a few holes for future crops.

2. COVER THE TERRAIN WITH BROKEN-DOWN CARS.

One North Carolinian’s suggestion ideally would have killed two birds with one stone. As environmental historian Donald Worster wrote in his book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, “Mrs. M.L. Yearby of Durham, North Carolina saw an opportunity to beautify her own state by shipping its junked autos out to the plains to anchor the blowing fields.”

3. BOMB THE SKY.


Getty Images

Explosives expert Tex Thornton tried ending the drought with dynamite. In a sales pitch given to the citizens of Dalhart, Texas, he explained that if the explosive was launched skywards and detonated aerially, immediate rainfall would follow. Embracing Thornton’s idea, the town gave him $300 to cover his expenses. Judgment day came on May 1, 1935, when the would-be hero set up shop by a local lake. Thousands of curious onlookers watched from afar as Thornton tied balloons to his dynamite sticks, which had been fitted with timed fuses.

Things quickly went awry once a violent dust storm arrived on the scene. The high winds made it too dangerous for Thornton to even think about releasing the explosives, especially now that a crowd was present. So in a last-ditch effort to deliver the goods, he buried his dynamite and set it off under the ground. Thornton’s Plan B backfired spectacularly: The blast just propelled extra dirt into the dusty atmosphere.

After a few more attempts, rain did come to Dalhart—as well as in regions too far away to be affected by his explosions. A victorious Thornton left Dalhart supposedly saying, “I’m mighty glad that the people of Dalhart and the Panhandle got moisture—and if I had anything to do with it, I’m doubly glad."

4. USE DEAD REPTILES AS YARD DECOR.

Contemporary folklore claimed that if you hung a deceased snake belly-up over a fence post, it would rain the next morning. When all else failed, some farmers actually tried this during the dust bowl years. Ironically, live snakes would have been far more useful to them. Back then, famished jackrabbits regularly turned up in droves to devour the few crops that were still being grown on the Great Plains. In western Kansas, the situation was so bad that citizens responded by organizing what became known as “jackrabbit drives.” Those involved formed huge lines and marched side-by-side for miles on end. Using their own bodies, they’d corral every rabbit in sight into an enclosure and club them to death. Yet if the species’ natural predators—like certain snakes—had been a bit more common, this drastic measure might not have been necessary. Who knows?

5. BRING THE RAIN WITH A FAUX MILITARY BATTLE.

Many of the more intense showdowns in the American Civil War, including Gettysburg, were followed by severe rainfall. This and other accounts over the years helped give rise to the once widespread belief that artillery caused downpours—a notion that was still fairly pervasive in the 1930s (and was broadly the same hypothesis that Thornton was working with).

One soldier from Denver petitioned the federal government for $20 million worth of ammunition, after which he would round up 40,000 members of the Civilian Conservation Corps for a couple of phony battles. After some non-lethal cannon fire, the rains would return—or at least, that was the plan.

“Try it, if it works, send me a check for $5000 for services rendered,” wrote the soldier.

This story originally ran in 2016.

10 Fun Facts About Corgis

iStock/Lisa_Nagorskaya
iStock/Lisa_Nagorskaya

You already know they’re cute, compact, and smart. But there’s a lot more to these beloved little dogs that you might not know. 

1. THERE ARE TWO DISTINCT BREEDS OF CORGIS.

There are two types of Welsh corgis: the Pembroke Welsh corgi and the Cardigan Welsh corgi. They are considered two entirely different breeds because they come from different ancestors. Their remarkable resemblance is a result of crossbreeding in the 19th century.   

If you’re trying to tell the two breeds apart, the most notable difference is that the Pembroke does not have a tail. On top of a tail, Cardigan Welsh corgis also have rounded ears, while Pembrokes generally have pointy ears. 

2. THE CARDIGAN WELSH CORGI IS THE OLDER BREED.

Photo of a Welsh Corgi Cardigan
iStock/Silense

A warrior tribe of Celts brought the corgis in their aboriginal form to Cardiganshire, Wales around 1200 BCE, which means corgis have been in Wales for over 3000 years. This early breed was a member of the Teckel family of dogs that went on to include the dachshund. 

3. PEMBROKE WELSH CORGIS HAVE A CONSIDERABLE HISTORY AS WELL.

welsh Corgi Pembroke sitting in autumn leaves
iStock/HelenaQueen

Although no one knows for sure, most agree that the Pembroke Welsh corgi dates back to 1107 CE when Flemish weavers migrated to Wales. The Spitz-type dog bred with the original Cardigan corgis to produce the Pembroke Welsh corgis we know today. 

4. THE KENNEL CLUB ORIGINALLY LUMPED THE TWO BREEDS TOGETHER.

The two types of corgis were registered as one in 1925, leading to a lot of stress among breeders. Often a judge would favor one breed over the other, which would lead to controversies at dog shows. After nearly a decade of (pretty adorable) strife, the breeds gained separate recognition in 1934. 

5. CORGIS WERE ORIGINALLY USED AS HERDERS.


iStock

The Welsh used the short dogs as herders as early as the 10th century. In those days, pastures were considered common land, so there were no fences. In order to keep a farmer’s cattle together and separated from other herds, corgis would nip at their legs to herd them. Because of their closeness to the ground, corgis had easy access to the cows’ ankles and were difficult targets of the retaliatory kicks of cattle. 

6. ACCORDING TO WELSH LEGEND, FAIRIES RIDE THEM.

Some say that the corgi is an “enchanted dog” favored by fairies and elves. At night the magical creatures would use the dogs to pull their carriages and be their steeds in battle. According to legend, the markings on a corgi’s coat suggest the faint outline of a saddle and harness. 

7. THE ROYAL FAMILY LOVES THE PEMBROKE WELSH CORGI.


Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II has had more than 30 corgis in her lifetime. Though her last two corgis—Whisper and Willow—have both recently passed away, she does still have two dorgis (corgi/dachshund mixes) named Candy and Vulcan.

The Queen met her first corgi when King George VI brought a male pooch home from a kennel in 1933. Named Dookie, the dog was an immediate hit with the future queen and her sister, Princess Margaret. 

After a second corgi named Jane entered the picture, the canine couple had a litter of puppies, two of which were kept. The Queen received another dog named Susan for her 18th birthday—from there, the collection of corgis really gained momentum. Some of the royal corgis bred with Princess Margaret’s dachshund Pipkin to create dorgis.

8. CORGIS WERE USED TO PREDICT PRINCESS CHARLOTTE'S NAME.

In the spring of 2015, when Prince William and Kate Middleton were awaiting the birth of their second child, people are already taking bets on the name. Gambling company Ladbrokes used corgis in an attempt to predict what the name would be. The company’s ad featured 10 corgis wearing vests with different names in a race to predict what the name of the child would be. The corgi sporting the name Alexandra won the race. Princess Charlotte was born on May 2, 2015.

9. CORGI MEANS "DWARF DOG" IN WELSH.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cor means dwarf and gi means dog.  

10. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA HOSTS A ENORMOUS CORGI MEETUP.


iStock

SoCal Corgi Beach Day started as a humble meet-up event at Huntington Beach in 2012. The first event attracted just 15 dogs; the last one had more than 1100 corgis in attendance. The event happens three times a year.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2015.

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