Feb 7, 2016

The Auk, the Dodo and the Oryx

Vanished and Vanishing Creatures
by Robert Silverberg

This book from the late sixties is about animals that had recently (in the last few hundred years- within human memory) gone extinct, or were presently in danger of extinction. It is a brief examination of what pushed these animals to the brink- usually a low reproduction rate, lack of defenses against introduced predators and unrestrained hunting by mankind. Extinct species discussed include numerous birds: the dodo, moa, passenger pigeon, heath hen, great auk and a few others. Mammals noted are the steller's sea cow, quagga, aurochs and giant ground sloth. There are also lots of animals in the book that were at the time at serious risk. Happy to say, at present time most of these are in still with us: giant panda, california condor, whooping crane, trumpeter swan, java rhino, cahow (a kind of petrel), przewalski's horse, nene (Hawaiian goose), pére david's deer, oryx. Sadly, attention to protection and conservation measures were not soon enough for others- at the time of his writing, java tigers were still around, so was the ivory-billed woodpecker. Now assumed extinct.

There were lots of details in here I never knew before about the fate of passenger pigeons. Descriptions of unfamiliar animals (takahe and moho birds of Hawaii) sent me to the internet numerous times to learn more about them. Did you know that there used to be nine distinct species of moa, ranging in size from the giants twelve feet tall (all I knew of before this book) to the size of the kiwi (only one left extant)? or that dodos were related to pigeons? Mostly I was baffled by the reactions of people in the 1800's when they realized an animal was on the verge of extinction- not a rush to try and save it, but to obtain a specimen for their museum, or just to have the honor of shooting one. Who takes pride in being the person who killed one of the last of a kind? It makes me angry to think of.

Funny, the cover I found to show (my edition has a pretty drab one) has the words of the title in a different order.

Rating: 3/5      246 pages, 1967

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