From Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, by Errol Fuller. Princeton University Press, 2014. Copyright 2013 © Errol Fuller
We tend to think of extinction as a silent process, occurring somewhere far, far away and long, long ago, but the unfocused, unstructured, sepia and black-and-white photographs collected in Lost Animals force us to acknowledge the loss. These animals survived for thousands of years, long enough to enter the photographic age and to be captured on film. The photos bring these lost species close enough to touch—almost, but not quite!
In creating a photographic record of extinct animals, one faces many challenges, but the two major obstacles are simply stated—how do you decide what animals to include? And are there photographs available of these species?
The problem of what is extinct and what is not is complicated because for a number of species, hopes are regularly expressed that individuals may still survive in some out-of-the-way place. The thylacine, the Pink-headed duck, the Ivory-billed woodpecker or the paradise parrot are all examples of this kind of wishful thinking. Perhaps they do still survive, but it is far, far more likely that they do not.
Further muddling the issue is the question of the borderline between species and subspecies. In Lost Animals creatures that are generally regarded as merely extinct races of still surviving species have not been included, with two notable exceptions.
The Quagga and the Heath Hen are generally regarded as races of species that otherwise still exist, but they are included because they have gained such a clear identity in the minds of those who have interested themselves in the subject of extinct animals, and also because reasonably good photographs of both species exist.
The other major challenge in presenting a photographic record of extinct species is finding the photographs. In many cases, the photographs in Lost Animals are among only a handful known to be in existence for an entire species; others are the only known photograph. In a digital age where we take more photographs every 2 minutes than the number of photographs taken in the entire 19th century, it is easy to forget how difficult, time-consuming, and expensive photography was in its early days.
Some readers will no doubt complain about the quality of the photographs. It is worth noting that many of them were taken in exceptionally difficult circumstances when just a fleeting view of the subject was obtained.
Cumbersome, heavy equipment was needed and often this had to be hauled for miles over difficult terrain. Lighting was critical, so too was complete stillness of the subject. Wet plates that dried out before the subject was properly in position and the need to be relatively close to it were all problems that had to be overcome. Also, there was no way of knowing just what the camera had caught. Immediate inspection (something we take for granted today) was out of the question. Film had to be ‘developed’ in a dark room and this facility was often miles (or perhaps many days travel) from the place where photos were taken.
Also significant is the fact that photographers often had no idea how important their photos would become. They didn’t necessarily have any insight into the notion that their subject would soon become extinct.
But despite all of the handicaps, these photos are evocative and moving records of creatures that are gone. Hopefully the viewer will accept them, flaws and all, for what they are and what they represent.
The Ivory-billed woodpecker was a spectacular black-and-white bird, with males sporting a dramatic red crest at the back of the head. It was large for a woodpecker (around 20 inches long); in fact it was the second-largest of all known woodpeckers, the largest being Mexico's Imperial Woodpecker--which is also now considered extinct.
Most of what is known of the living bird comes from the work of James T. Tanner (1914-1991), who located ivory-bills in the 1930s, at a time when the species was all but gone and the population was down to a handful of birds. On Sunday, March 6 1938, Tanner temporarily removed a young individual from its nest to ring it, and while it was under his control several wonderful photographs were taken. Two of these photographs were reproduced in Tanner's book, The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, published in 1942. For many years, it was assumed these were the only photographs taken that day, but more than 60 years later, Nancy, Jim's widow, shared an old brown envelope containing photographic negatives of several more images with a naturalist called Stephen Lyn Bales. Bales used several of them in his book Ghost Birds (2010).
The thylacine is one of the world's most celebrated mystery animals. Does it still exist in remote and little visited parts of Tasmania, or did the last individual die--as the academic record states--on September 7th 1936, in an enclosure at the Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart? The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Small numbers of Thylacines, isolated from others of their kind, were perhaps still padding about the Tasmanian wilderness for some years after the death of the zoo individual that has come to be known as the "last" of the species. The likelihood is that at some time during the 1940s, 1950s or 1960s the very last Tasmanian thylacine died alone on a beach, in a forest, or on a mountainside.
The story of the passenger pigeon is such a startling one that it is often told, and in all the annals of extinction there is no other tale quite like it. At the start of the 19th century this fast-flighted, streamlined pigeon was quite possibly the most numerous bird on earth; it existed in staggeringly vast numbers. By the century's end, the colossal population had dwindled almost to zero, and the last record of a wild bird is of one shot by an adolescent boy in Pike County, Ohio in March 1900. A few individuals are known to have survived for a little longer, however, living in captivity in Milwaukee, Chicago and Cincinnati.
At about 1 o'clock in the afternoon of Tuesday September 1st 1914 the last of these captive birds, Martha, died in her cage, and a species that a mere hundred years earlier could be counted in the billions, was extinct.
These photos were taken during 1896 and are now the property of the Historical Society of Wisconsin. There is a certain amount of doubt over who actually took them. It may have been Whitman himself but it is more likely they were taken by someone named J. G. Hubbard. They were somehow acquired by the celebrated ornithologist Frank M. Chapman (1864-1945), who for many years was Curator of Birds at The American Museum of Natural History. At some point Chapman passed them on to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
This particular image shows a chick, or squab as the young of pigeons are sometimes called. There seems to be no record as to whether this individual survived to adulthood.
Photo credit: A remarkable series of photographs exist showing passenger pigeons in the aviairies of C. O. Whitman (1842-1910), once Professor of Zoology at the University of Chicago
The Caribbean monk seal is one of three closely related species, two of which still survive, although both of these are seriously threatened. They are the Mediterranean monk seal (Monarchus monarchus) and the Hawaiian monk seal (Monarchus schauinslandi). The 'monk' part of their name comes from their physical appearance. The smooth, round head with rolls of skin around the neck reminded their original scientific describer of a monk dressed in robes.
The last reliable sighting of the Caribbean Monk Seal in the wild seems to have occurred in 1952, when a small colony was seen on Serranilla Bank, approximately halfway between Jamaica and Honduras.
Photo credit: Three images of the Paradise Parrot taken in fairly quick succession by C. H. H. Jerrard during 1922 at Burnett River Queensland. They show the bird perched on a termite mound by its nesting hole. The top image is reproduced from a hand-coloured lantern slide that was made from one of Jerrardís original black and white photographs. The poor colouring is a weak attempt to show the beautiful colours of the living bird.
Is the paradise parrot really extinct? This is one of those species for which rumors of survival abound, and there are many who believe that somewhere in the vastness of outback Australia it might still exist.
Sadly, there are compelling reasons for supposing that it has vanished forever. Following the initial discovery, birds didn't prove hard to find; they were perhaps never more than locally common, but seemed to be quite widely distributed and occurred in all kinds of suitable areas. A pattern of decline was quickly established, however, at the turn of the 19th century and during the years leading up to World War I. By the time war broke out paradise parrots seemed to be entirely gone. The last legitimate sighting of the species occurred on November 20th, 1928.
The Quagga is one of the icons of extinction with a very distinct identity, yet recent research has revealed that it is probably not even a full species--just a race of the still-extant plains zebra; DNA analysis seems to confirm this. Despite wide acceptance of this idea by biologists, there is little doubt that the Quagga will retain its iconic position, its dramatic history and unmistakable appearance ensuring that this status will endure.
There are just five known photographs of living Quagga, all of them featuring the same individual, a female resident at London Zoo. She died on July 15th, 1872, having been at the zoo for 21 years.
Most people who hear of the laughing owl ask the obvious question--did it actually laugh? The answer is not straightforward. Walter Buller, who handled living individuals, said that it did. According to him it was, "a peculiar kind of laugh in a descending scale, and very ridiculous to hear." On the other hand some early writers described hearing nothing more than a series of dismal shrieks that would cause a camper, caught at night in some wild place, to wake with a shudder.
The last widely accepted record of a laughing owl is of one picked up dead at Blue Cliffs, South Canterbury by a Mrs. Airini Woodhouse (1896-1989) in July 1914. It is doubtful if this really was the last one, however. For many years after 1914 people claimed to see individuals. In fact, Oliver Parr recalled seeing birds until about 1924 and, given his photographic credentials, it would be hard to doubt him.
Despite the fact that it was once quite common, Schomburgk's deer is a mysterious animal. There appears to be only one preserved specimen in the world's museums, a stuffed animal in the collection of the Natural History Museum, Paris. Similarly, there seems to be just a single photograph and this was taken at a Berlin Zoo during 1911 (another purporting to show Schomburgk's deer may actually show another species).
As far as is known the animals were extinct in the wild by the early 1930s. One individual--perhaps the last--was kept as a pet in a temple in the Samut Sakhon province of Thailand where it lived until 1938. There is a story that it was killed in that year by a local drunk.
Photo credit: This rather blurred photo is one of the only photographic images of the 'O'u, a species that was obviously very difficult to capture on film. It has not proved possible to find details of when or how it was taken.
Several extinctions happened in the Hawaiian Islands at the end of the nineteenth century or start of the twentieth, and there is no photographic record of most of the species concerned. One species that survived this onslaught of extinction is called the 'O 'u, a word pronounced just as might be expected, Oh-oo. The initial escape was not to last, however.
During the twentieth century populations plummeted. By the 1970s the species was almost extinct with just a few survival pockets. One of the last reasonably stable colonies lived on the slopes of the volcano Mauna Loa. During 1984 a lava flow demolished the habitat. The species had a last redoubt on the island of Kauai and was reliably seen there during 1988, but a hurricane destroyed this particular area soon after. Hopes are expressed that birds may still survive in places inaccessible to mosquitos, but this hope becomes increasingly forlorn as time passes.
Don Merton (1939-2011) is a legendary figure in the story of animal conservation and the preservation of species. He was instrumental in saving New Zealand's black robin (Petroica traversi) from extinction, one of the most spectacular achievements of the conservation movement. Sadly, neither he nor his colleagues could save the New Zealand bush wren.
It had once been an inhabitant of much of the country. The bush wren was found on both of New Zealand's main islands, although in historical times it seems to always have been rare on the North. On the South Island, however, it was comparatively plentiful. Its small size and a fatal liking for spending time on the ground made it vulnerable to attacks from mammalian predators, of course. Once these animals began to occur on New Zealand soil--through the agency of humans--the bush wren's days were numbered. By the beginning of the 20th century it had become rare, and as the century wore on it became excessively so.
In September 1964 Merton was able to photograph one of the few surviving wrens on Big South Cape, one of New Zealand's offshore islands, but unfortunately in that year rats somehow managed to invade the island. It didn't take long for them to do their work. The last fully authenticated records of living wrens in this area date from 1972.