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NFC: Passenger Pigeon (fwd)
J. L. Wiegert
Dubotchugh yIpummoH. bI'IQchugh Yivang!
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---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 22 Nov 1998 11:54:21 EST
From: Ellasoma at aol_com
To: nfc at actwin_com,
schmi178 at tc_umn.edu
Subject: Passenger Pigeon
OFF TOPIC BUT SOBERING....
Biodiversity and Conservation: A Hypertext Book by Peter J. Bryant
Chapter 3: EXTINCTION AND DEPLETION FROM OVER-EXPLOITATION
LATE PLEISTOCENE EXTINCTIONS
SURVIVORS FROM THE PLEISTOCENE
HISTORICAL EXTINCTION EVENTS
Steller's Sea Cow
THE FUR TRADE
The Russian Fur Trade
The American Fur Trade
Registered UCI students: view the slide show for this chapter.
LATE PLEISTOCENE EXTINCTIONS
In late pleistocene, during the last 50,000 years, there were mass extinction
events in many different parts of the world, involving at least 200 genera
(plural of genus = a group of related species). But this was different from
previous episodes of mass extinction:
1. It was much more selective, involving mainly the megafauna: the large
herbivores (mammoths, mastodons, huge ground sloths, cave bears, woolly
rhinoceros, other rhinoceroses, etc.) and the carnivores that fed on them, the
dire wolves and sabre-tooth cats. There was no accelerated extinction of
smaller terrestrial species, plants, or marine organisms.
The following disappeared from America, Europe and Australia:
All herbivores > 1000 kg
75% of herbivores 100-1000 kg
41% of hervibores 5-100 kg
< 2% of hervibores < 5kg
2. It occurred at different times on different land masses:
Time of start of
major extinction episodes
(years before present) Africa and S.E. Asia 50,000
North Eurasia 13,000
North America 11,000
South America 10,000
West Indies 4,000
New Zealand 900
This excludes any global catastrophe or climatic change as an explanation.
In all of these cases except Africa, the extinctions occurred shortly after
the first arrival of prehistoric humans. The first humans were faced with
animals that had evolved in the absence of human predators, and the animals
were probably easily overcome. Therefore, the most plausible explanation is
that these extinctions were caused by overexploitation by human hunters.
In Africa, massive extinction does not coincide with the arrival of humans.
Humans had been evolving there for millions of years without causing mass
extinctions (possibly was not as carnivorous as his descendants in other parts
of the world) but it does coincide with the maximum development of advanced
early Stone Age hunting cultures.
Many authors have remarked that to see what the pleistocene was like, you
should go to Africa. Africa still has more large herbivores (including
elephants, hippos, rhinos, etc.) than any other place on earth. But, even in
Africa, the big game we see today is only about 70% of the genera that were
present in mid-pleistocene. About 50 genera disappeared about 40,000 years
It is paradoxical that the region where humans have existed the longest
(Africa) retained a wide variety of big game whereas the areas where humans
arrived more recently have suffered a more complete loss. Perhaps the African
big game had time to evolve defensive behavior, whereas species elsewhere were
caught defenseless and naive by a newly arrived advanced hunting culture.
Australia was first colonized by humans (already Homo sapiens) around 50,000
years ago and subsequently (about 13,000 yrs b.p.) lost all of its very large
mammals (including giant wombats as big as grizzly bears and giant kangaroos;
in fact all except some kangaroos), its giant snakes and reptiles and half of
its large flightless birds.
North America. The data are clearest for North America, where 70 species = 95%
of the megafauna disappeared about 11,000 years ago. This is exactly the time
when North America was colonized by humans, and their arrival and skill as
hunters at that time is documented by the appearance of artifacts.
In some cases accurate dating methods have shown that certain species became
extinct at exactly the times that humans arrived. Giant ground sloths and
mountain goats in the Grand Canyon both went extinct 11,100 years ago which is
the time that the human hunters arrived (within the accuracy of dating
methods, which is +200 years).
The disappearing mammals in North America included all of the following (Fig.
1 p 95):
*Some of these fossils are directly associated with human artefacts in
The carnivores on the list were probably not hunted directly, but were
dependent on the large herbivores for food, so soon followed them to
There is also direct evidence for killing by humans. The human archeological
sites of 11,000 b.p. have stone projectile points which were presumably used
in hunting the large mammals. One mammoth skeleton has eight stone spearpoints
among its ribs. Some of the large mammals were trapped in pits, some were
cornered using fire. La Brea tar pits and the Page Museum is an excellent
place to see the fossils and reconstructions from this period.
The most recent analysis of late Pleistocene extinctions in North America
(Martin, 1982) suggests that they happened over just a few hundred years. This
explains why there is so little archaeological evidence for mammoth-hunting in
the New World. The total number of mammoths from archeological sites in North
America is 38; in Asia, where mammoths were hunted for many thousands of
years, there are many more mammoth remains -e.g. remains of 1000 mammoths at
just one site in Czechoslovakia and of 100,000 horses at another site.
Paul Martin has suggested that the human population quickly expanded south
from the Bering land bridge to the position of present-day Edmonton, then
south, and exterminated the big game as they went ("Blitzkreig" model, p.
South America was also colonized by humans about eleven thousand years ago,
and since that time it has lost 80% of its genera of large mammals, including
ground sloths, horses, and mastodons.
SURVIVORS FROM THE PLEISTOCENE
In North America, the only surviving herbivores of the megafauna are bears,
elk, moose and buffalo. (The horse also survived, but only through its
domestication and preservation overseas).
The American Buffalo (also called American Bison; taxonomically correct name =
American Plains Buffalo) was the symbol of the wild west, and subject of much
frontier and Indian lore, but it was brought almost to extinction by
overzealous hunters (McHugh, 1972).
In the 1800's, about 65 million buffalo roamed the prairies of the Great
Plains. Herds were described up to 25 miles long, containing 12 million
animals. Possibly the high population was a result of the elimination of other
large herbivores that competed with the buffalo for food and space. Native
Americans hunted the buffalo for thousands of years without making a dent in
The great buffalo slaughter started with the arrival of settlers from Europe
and especially the railroads in the 1860's. As the railroads pushed west, huge
numbers of buffalo were killed for meat and hides, and to starve out the
Native Americans. A representative of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative
describes the buffalo slaughter as a calculated military strategy designed to
force the Native Americans on to reservations. Professional hunters shot the
animals for their tongues and hides and often left the carcasses to rot. About
2.5 million buffalo were killed annually between 1870 and 1875, and by 1883
the last large herd containing about 10,000 buffalo was slaughtered. Domestic
cattle diseases may have also had a major impact on the herds. By 1890, less
than 1000 buffalo remained in the U.S. The final refuge for the species
wasYellowstone National Park, established in 1872.
The total buffalo population has been built back up so that now the species is
not endangered. More than 150,000 exist in public and private herds in the
U.S. and Canada. Most of them are being raised like cattle on big ranches to
provide beef for buffalo burgers. A confederation of American Indian tribes
(the InterTribal Bison Cooperative) is also heavily involved in re-
establishing buffalo populations (39 tribes, 8000 buffalo). They are finding
that buffalo are much better adapted to North American winters than domestic
cattle are, and that they are less likely to overgraze their pasture (cattle
tend to concentrate on the patches of best forage and overgraze those patches,
causing erosion; buffalo graze more lightly and keep moving). A recent study
shows that grazing by bison increases biodiversity of the prairie habitat.
Visit the Bookstore! and help support this web site
Bring Back the Buffalo! : A Sustainable Future for America's Great Plains by
Ernest Callenbach (1995). Island Press, 250pp. List Price: $25.00, Our Price:
$17.50 Or search for "American buffalo":
The smaller European relative of the American buffalo, called the European
Bison or Wisent, suffered a similar fate. Its population was down to 50
animals in 1921, but now it is back up to over 800 in private herds and zoos.
The Moose has also been hunted to near extinction but has recovered to a
population of about 1 million.
HISTORICAL EXTINCTION EVENTS
Some survivors from the Pleistocene have not been as lucky as the buffalo, and
have been driven to extinction during historical times by over-exploitation:
Another European member of the cattle family, the Aurochs, was a long-horned,
forest-dwelling ancestor of modern domestic cattle. Its last holdout was in a
private game reserve in Poland, but it was killed off by poachers. The last
one died in 1627.
Steller's Sea Cow
A heavy, slow-swimming marine mammal related to the manatee and dugong, but
much larger (25-30 feet long). It was discovered in 1741 in the ocean around
some small islands in the far north Pacific Ocean. It was used as food by
visiting sea-otter hunters, and was extinct by 1768, 27 years after its
A smaller (12 feet long) relative of the sea cow that is in danger of
extinction by the end of the decade is the Manatee (West Indian or Florida
Manatee), a slow-swimming, friendly marine mammal that feeds on sea grass and
lives in the coastal waterways of Florida and in other coastal areas around
the Caribbean. About 1400 remain in the U.S. population, and about 200 die
each year, mainly from collisions with speedboats. In 1996, 415 manatees
deaths were recorded; most of them were attributed to a toxic red tide, but at
least 60 were due to watercraft collisions. Florida's response to this problem
has been to post "go-slow" signs on the waterways, and to rely mainly on
voluntary compliance. They have also established some very small sanctuaries.
These efforts are not working very well. In early January 1998, Florida's
Department of Environmental Protection announced that 240 manatees died in
1997 -- the second highest annual death count since they started keeping
records in 1974. Read updates at Environment Archive: Manatees.
The other surviving relative, the dugong, is also in serious trouble.
A 3-foot tall penguin-like flightless seabird. A very fast underwater swimmer,
but clumsy on land. Hundreds of thousands of these birds lived in the North
Atlantic. They were hunted between 1785 and 1844, mainly for their feathers
which were used for mattress and pillow stuffing. The last breeding pair was
killed by two fishermen, who also smashed the last egg.
This species was the only endemic parrot of North America. It was considered a
garden pest because it ate fruit. It became extinct in 1904.
The passenger pigeon was an attractive bird with a blue back and a pink breast
that existed in huge populations. In fact, it may have been the most abundant
bird ever to have lived. John James Audubon observed a flock of pigeons
passing over a period of three days at a rate he estimated at over 300 million
birds an hour. The passage of large flocks created a roar of wings that could
be heard 6 miles away. The pigeons nested in long narrow colonies that could
be 40 miles long and several miles across. They occurred throughout Eastern
North America where they fed on acorns and beechnuts.
Early settlers in the United States developed a taste for passenger pigeon and
commercial hunters devised many different ways of killing large numbers of the
birds. They were suffocated by burning grass or sulphur below their roosts;
fed grain soaked in alcohol; beaten down with long sticks, blasted with
shotguns, caught in nets or trapped using a decoy pigeon tied to a perch
called a stool. This is the origin of the term "stool pigeon".
By the 1880's the huge flocks were gone from the coastal states and were
dwindling everywhere else. The last wild passenger pigeon was seen in Michigan
in 1889 and the last captive bird ("Martha") died in the Cincinnati Zoo in
THE FUR TRADE
The hunting of animals for their hides (for leather) or fur played a very
important part in the exploration and history of Europe, Asia and North
America (Matthiessen, 1987; Ponting, 1991). It also led to a drastic reduction
in the abundance of (though fortunately not the extinction of) many kinds of
The Russian Fur Trade
The Fur Trade began in earnest in medieval times in Europe, when it involved
the hunting of European animals to stock the wardrobes of the nobility and
royalty. It involved mainly small animals such as squirrels, martens, ermine
(=white phase of weasel), sable and foxes, and they were usually trapped alive
so that their furs could be collected undamaged. Several hundred squirrel
pelts were needed to make one cloak, so the numbers killed were enormous.
Eventually the populations of fur-bearing animals in Western Europe were
almost exhausted, and this led to the exploration of the northern forests of
Russia and the development of an international trading system. This trade
became a major driving force behind the Russian expansion into Siberia, and
the fur trade became Russia's economic foundation. It is estimated that, at
the height of the squirrel trade (14th-16th centuries), Novgorod (one of three
main centers) was exporting half a million squirrel skins a year. The fur-
bearing animals of the vast Siberian forests were virtually eliminated by the
end of the 18th century.
When the Russian traders had exhausted the terrestrial fur-bearing animals
they turned their attention to the sea otters in the north Pacific. Between
1750 and 1790 about 250,000 sea otters were killed, then they were too scarce
to be worth hunting and the trade collapsed. The population has recovered well
and there is now a fairly large population off Alaska (100,000-150,000
animals) and Russia. But the population in western Alaskan waters is
suffering heavy predation from Killer Whales (over 40,000 eaten in the period
1990-1998), possibly because of the lack of the whales' traditional food,
which was Stellar sea lions and harbor seals.
Sea otters have also made a comeback along the California coast between Point
Conception and Monterey Bay, having built their population back up to 2,400.
But because of the California population's small size and limited range and
vulnerability to oil spills, in 1987 the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided
to try to establish a second population at San Nicolas Island, one of the
southernmost of the Channel Islands that once had a natural population. 139
otters were translocated over a three-year period. However, the biologists
were surprised when almost all of the otters left, probably to return to the
Mainland (70 miles away). 10-15 remain and there has been some reproduction,
so the plan may succeed eventually.
Orphan sea otters are rescued at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and returned to the
wild. Sea urchin fishermen are concerned about the growth of the sea otter
population, believing that the otters are competing with them for the urchins.
The American Fur Trade
Partly because of the decline of the Russian fur bearing animals, from the
earliest days of European settlement in North America, the fur trade has been
one of the main stimuli for westward expansion. For a long time, the colonists
simply traded their goods for furs that the Native Americans collected. Later
the Europeans became trappers as well as traders.
The strategy of the trappers in North America was similar to what had been
responsible for depletion of these animals in Europe and Russia - they would
exploit an area until the animals were so scarce that it was no longer
profitable to hunt them, then they would move on to other areas and repeat the
One of the favorite targets of the trappers in North America was the beaver,
the largest of the North American rodents. It was once extremely abundant
throughout most of the continent but went into decline as early as 1638, at
which time King Charles II of England decreed the compulsory use of beaver fur
in the manufacture of hats. Beaverfur hats were fashionable until the early
nineteenth century, and the hunting pressure during this time virtually wiped
out the species east of the Mississippi.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the fur trade in North America moved on
to its last frontier, west of the Mississippi. In 1805 when the first
explorers (Lewis and Clark) crossed the Rocky Mountains and continued on to
the Pacific coast they reported that the area was "richer in beaver and otter
than any other country on earth". The fur trappers were close behind the
explorers, and in less than 40 years they had virtually cleared the area of
both beaver and otter. By 1840 the beaver had been overexploited to the level
where it was no longer worth hunting. The trappers had nowhere else to go, but
they could switch to less desirable species. For a few years the trade was
sustained by muskrat and marten furs, but these were also soon depleted.
Beavers have been protected in the 20th century and are now doing quite well
on both sides of the Rocky Mountains. Now the beavers that still exist are
often considered pests because they dam up creeks and cause flooding that
leads to property damage. Oregon's beaver population causes about $250,000 in
damage to roads, crops and businesses each year; the population is controlled
mainly by professional trappers who catch about 5,000 beavers a year. In New
York State bills have recently been introduced that would legalize underwater
traps that kill beavers by drowning.
Not only beaver, but many other wildlife species in this country were almost
eliminated by the fur trade. The Hudson's Bay Company was responsible for
promoting the hunting of hundreds of thousands fur-bearing animals every year
in North America, and exporting the hides and furs to Europe. The most
valuable were the various members of the weasel family including the short-
tailed weasel in its white or "ermine" phase, the otter, mink, pine marten,
fisher, and wolverine. Of these animals, only weasels, otters and mink remain
widespread, and the weasel is the only one that is still abundant. These
animals were reduced initially by the fur trade, but most of them have also
suffered from reduction in their forest habitat.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare continues to oppose the Fur Trade.
The loss of furs from other sources was a major incentive leading to massive
hunts for various types of seal (Ponting, 1991). The animals were usually
clubbed to death when they came ashore to breed. The pattern was familiar -
the discovery of large populations of target species, the development of
intensive hunting leading to extermination or depletion, the move to a new
area. The first phase (1780-1820) was directed at the southern fur seal in
many areas of the southern hemisphere and was carried out by sealers from
Europe, Russia, Canada and the U.S. Each of the following areas was the site
of a fur seal hunt until the population was extinct or depleted to the level
where it was not profitable to hunt:
Exhaustion of fur seal hunts in the Southern Hemisphere, 1780-1820 1790-1791
Tristan da Cunha
1790-1791 Falkland Islands
1790-1791 Tierra del Fuego
1797-1803 Mas Afuera (Juan
1800-1825 South Georgia
? South Shetland Islands
1800-1825 Kerguelen Island
? Australian coast
1810-1820 Macquarie Island
A massive seal hunt also developed in the North Atlantic, taking advantage of
the huge harp seal population that breeds on the pack ice in winter around
Labrador and Newfoundland. The sealers, from Newfoundland, focused on the
newborn seals with pure white fur, although adults were also taken for their
oil as well as fur. The Newfoundland sealing industry began in the early 19th
century and peaked at about 600,000 animals per year in the 1850's. This
ultimately led to reduction in the size of the herd to about one fifth of its
original size, and the industry went into decline in the early 20th century.
Another herd of harp seals, at Jan Mayen Island in the Arctic ocean, was wiped
out by a rapid boom and bust between 1840 and 1860.
Off the west coast of Namibia in Africa, 40- 50,000 cape fur seal are taken
each year on the beaches of Lüderitz and Cape Cros. This is about 10% of the
world's sealing activity. Most of them are being killed by clubbing to death,
which is claimed to be a humane method. Next year, South Africa is expected
to resume its harvest of these seals.
In the North Pacific, the northern fur seal was hunted on the Pribilof Islands
in the Bering Sea, first by the Russians after they had wiped out the sea
otters. The slaughter went from 127,000 in 1791 down to 7,000 a year in the
1820's after 2.5 million had been killed. The population recovered after the
Russian hunters moved to other areas, but after Alaska was sold to the U.S. in
1867 the hunting level went back up to 250,000 per year. This reduced the
population again so that in the 1890's the number killed was down to 17,000 a
year. It is now illegal to hunt fur seals, except that there is an exemption
allowing Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos to continue to hunt at a subsistence
level. These exemptions are often controversial and do not preclude adverse
effects on aboriginal economies.
Elephant Seals were hunted in the Pacific by whalers who wanted to supplement
their catch. They were hunted for their oil rather than their fur or skin.
Hundreds of thousands of these animals were killed in the southern ocean and
along the coast of California. The southern population (a distinct subspecies)
was saved when the Kerguelen and Macquarie Islands were turned into nature
reserves, but in 1884 it appeared that the northern subspecies had been lost.
However, a small colony of about 20 had, in fact, survived and the stock is
now doing quite well. A large breeding population now congregates on the beach
at Ano Nuevo, fifty-five miles south of San Francisco, every winter. Seals and
sea lions may have had many more breeding colonies on the mainland before they
were eliminated by prehistoric hunting.
Walruses were killed for three centuries for their oil, skin, and ivory from
their tusks. They were once abundant in the North Pacific, North Atlantic and
the Arctic Oceans, but like the other seals, walruses were hunted almost to
extinction. They are now protected in this country and the walrus population
appears stable at about 200,000 individuals.
Walruses, seals and sea lions are protected in the U.S. by the Marine Mammal
Protection Act, passed in 1972. This Act established a moratorium on the
taking and importation of various marine mammals, their parts, and products.
The Act does allow various exceptions. For example, it allows Eskimos and
other Alaskan Natives to take walrus for subsistence, and their parts for use
in certain handicraft articles.
Some marine mammal populations have recovered quite well after we stopped
hunting them. Others have remained at dangerously low levels. One factor that
probably makes a big difference is the extent to which we have depleted their
food supplies (see next chapter).
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University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA 92697, USA.
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A Project of the Interdisciplinary Minor in Global Sustainability