The Big Question: Are so-called 'extinct' species really extinct, and will we rediscover any?

A A A

Why are we asking this now?

Because ornithologists have just launched an international quest to rediscover a large group of "lost" bird species – believing that some may not be lost after all.



Why does that matter?

Because the human pressure on the natural world is increasing to such an extent that more and more creatures face being wiped out. According to the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 12 per cent of the world's birds, 21 per cent of mammals, 30 per cent of amphibians, 31 per cent of reptiles, 37 per cent of fishes and 70 per cent of the world's plant species are now threatened with extinction. Extinction is one of the great blights of our times. Any creatures that are labelled extinct, but which can be rediscovered, offer enormous hope for conservation.



Are there likely to be many?

More than you might think. In the past few years there has been a whole series of rediscoveries of birds, mammals, fish, insects and other creatures that were supposed to have died out.

For example, the mahogany glider, an Australian possum, was rediscovered in 1989 after an absence of more than 100 years, while the New Zealand storm petrel, a seabird, was thought to have vanished a century and a half ago – it was only known from museum specimens – until it was rediscovered in 2003, and India's large-billed reed warbler was thought to have died out a similar time ago, until it was rediscovered in 2006.



Why have we labelled so many things extinct when they are not?

Perhaps because of the old sin of the pride of knowledge (which was Adam's sin, if you remember); we really enjoy saying I know. It is much more tempting for humans to express certainty about a point than to express doubt, and because we are generally anthropocentric – that is, we put ourselves at the centre of the universe – we tend to think that if we can't see something, then it's not there.

We forget that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – it's harder to prove something isn't, than it is to prove something is. And we also forget that while life in the natural world can be fragile, it can also be astonishingly resilient, and capable of clinging on against all expectations.

There have been so many recent rediscoveries of supposedly vanished birds – five in New Zealand alone – that, last month, BirdLife International, the Cambridge-based global partnership of bird protection organisations, was prompted to launch a campaign to try to confirm the continued existence of no fewer than 47 bird species, which have not been seen for up to 200 years.



Such as the dodo?

No, not the dodo, although that would be the supreme example of what some biologists now call a "lazarus species" – one that comes back from the dead – as the dodo is our most familiar icon of extinction (greatly helped by its appearance in Alice in Wonderland). But the list included birds from every continent, ranging forward from the hooded seedeater of Brazil, not recorded since 1823. Marco Lambertini, BirdLife's chief executive, said that some of these species had not been seen by any living person, but birdwatchers around the world still dream of rediscovering "these long-lost ghosts".



Why not the dodo?

The dodo was a big-beaked, fat, flightless pigeon confined to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. It was discovered by Dutch sailors in 1571; by 1700, it had disappeared. The cause of its extinction was probably a combination of hunting and the destruction of its habitat following the introduction of European domestic animals, such as pigs. As its range was so small and restricted, and it could not fly anywhere else, this is one case where we can be certain that extinct really means extinct.

We can also say that for the passenger pigeon, which is the great symbol of extinction in the United States. This bird once flocked in countless millions across the Great Plains but, in the late 19th century, it was hunted with such systematic ferocity that by 1914 there was only one bird left – named Martha – and she died that year in Cincinnati Zoo. No one thinks we'll find the passenger pigeon again.



Then what sorts of supposedly 'extinct' creatures might we rediscover?

Ones that live in places largely inaccessible to humans, such as the open ocean, remote islands or deep forests. In terms of birds, at the top of the list is America's ivory-billed woodpecker, a wonderfully charismatic creature that has not been reliably recorded in the US since 1944, although there have been countless unverified sightings; in 2005, a group of senior US ornithologists sensationally claimed to have rediscovered it in the forests of Arkansas, but their claim has been strongly disputed and not since backed up. However, to find the ivory bill remains the holy grail of birdwatching in the US, and perhaps in the world.



What sort of 'extinct' mammals might we rediscover?

Some of the rhino species, perhaps, in dense south-east Asian forests; perhaps the tiger in regions of central Asia, such as Iran; a range of smaller creatures. The most beguiling possibilities were suggested by a Belgian zoologist, Bernard Heuvelmans, in a riveting book published in 1955 entitled On The Track Of Unknown Animals. This was a calm look at all the legends of mysterious beasts – from the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman, down – that did not necessarily offer conclusions, but made interesting suggestions.

The most fascinating of all concerned the woolly mammoth, which died out about 8,000 years ago, although a population is known to have clung on in Wrangel Island, off the coast of Siberia, until about 3,500 years ago (when the pyramids of Egypt were already well established). Quoting accounts from hunters, Heuvelmans suggested that a few mammoths might still survive in the taiga, the vast evergreen forests that stretch, largely unpenetrated, for thousands of miles across Siberia's whole breadth. It has to be said that Heuvelmans's book was the foundation for what is known today as cryptozoology, an interest which at its wackier, New Age end, concerns itself largely with legendary creatures such as the Loch Ness Monster and the Bigfoot of the American north-west. But Heuvelmans himself was a sober investigator.



How great would it be if we could rediscover the mammoth?

It would be even greater if we could not lose the tiger. Although the possibility of "lazarus species" is intriguing, it is not half as important as holding on to the species we already have – some of which are daily ever-more threatened.

And as the human pressure on the natural world grows more and more intense, for the ones that we lose in future, extinction really is likely to mean extinction.

Might an 'extinct' animal like the woolly mammoth still survive somewhere?

Yes

*Even today there are some vast areas, such as the taiga forest in Siberia, which are still unpenetrated by humans



*Experience shows that sometimes small numbers of rare species can cling on unknown for a very long time



*The natural world has a habit of surprising us

No

*It was not just hunting but global climate change that drove the mammoth to extinction



*There would have been clear, recorded human contact had any mammoths still survived



*It is simply too long since the species died out to think that a few individuals might have carried on

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

Suggested Topics
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
football
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Assessor

£26000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: SAP Assessor Job T...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

HR Advisor (Employee Relations) - Kentish Town, NW London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor (Employee Rela...

Derivatives Risk Commodities Business Analyst /Market Risk

£600 - £800 per day: Harrington Starr: Derivatives Risk Commodities Business A...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering