When we talk about animal extinction, most people think about the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. Still, there have been many similar events throughout history, some even more catastrophic.
The three main reasons animals become extinct are meteor and comet strikes, climate change, and habitat loss. All of us must play our part to ensure no more species are lost.
What causes animal extinction, and is there a way that species extinction can be prevented in modern times? From meteor strikes and temperature changes to pollution and resource competition, there are many ways a species can be lost from the planet.
What is Animal Extinction?
The definition of the word “extinction” from the Cambridge English Dictionary is:
A situation in which something no longer exists.
In the Oxford English dictionary, “extinction” is defined as:
The process of a particular thing ceasing to exist.
Animal extinction refers to a time whereby no more of a species exists either in the wild or in captivity. It could mean they are gone from one place but still surviving in another. For example, at the end of the last ice age, around 11,000 years ago, an ancient horse became extinct in North America, but it continued to thrive in Africa and Eurasia. Those horses are the ancestors of the horses and donkeys that live on Earth today.
Glyptodon is the perfect example of an animal that became extinct in all areas, but a smaller cousin lives today. Glyptodon was a giant armadillo with a large, armored shell. It is believed they traveled from South America to North America via the Isthmus of Panama, a stretch of land that joins the two Americas. At the end of the last ice age, Glyptodon became extinct 10,000 – 11,000 years ago.
Top 3 Causes of Animal Extinction
While meteor strikes are the most well-known cause of extinction, many factors can lead to animal extinction. Here are the top 3 causes of animal extinction.
The most famous meteor impact is the KT event or Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction Event. This occurred roughly 65 million years ago when a meteor or comet hit the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. This caused millions of tons of dust and ash to fill the atmosphere, blocking the sun and causing most vegetation to die off. This caused the eventual starvation of herbivorous dinosaurs, which led to the carnivores’ demise.
Other meteors or comet strikes have occurred, such as the PT event around 250 million years ago. This extinction event is thought to have been caused by multiple small meteor strikes and other factors such as volcanic activity and caused the loss of almost 90% of all land animals and approximately 70% of all marine animals.
After the PT extinction event, the planet was a barren, arid wasteland for several million years until the Triassic period’s first dinosaurs began to evolve.
We typically think of climate change as what is happening now, with our oceans getting warmer and summer months getting hotter. However, the end of the last ice age saw vast areas of ice and snow melt as global temperatures warmed. Mastodons, primitive mammoth cousins, lived in North America, where they adapted to the snowy conditions with thick fur coats. Much of North America was covered by snow and ice sheets, and there were several large glaciers. Southern states were slightly warmer with less snow and ice, but temperatures were still frigid.
As the ice age came to an end, mastodons could not adapt quickly enough to the warmer environment, and they eventually became extinct around 10,500 years ago. There have been five or six ice ages in Earth’s history. It is believed that as plants evolved and grew to larger sizes, they reduced the carbon dioxide in the air and increased oxygen levels. The summer months were not warm enough to melt the ice sheets.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas contributing to rising temperatures. Ice ages tend to end when carbon dioxide levels are high, and oxygen levels fall. Earth may experience more ice ages in the future.
Habitat loss can cause extinction at any time, but the effects tend to be much slower than an asteroid or comet strike. The Vancouver marmot may be a small creature, but habitat loss has put it on the brink of extinction due to climate change. Due to warming temperatures, their alpine habitats are reducing every year. This dramatically affects foraging ranges, breeding patterns, and the survival rates of any future offspring.
The fate of the Vancouver marmot was so dire that in 2003 there were only 30 individuals left in the wild. Thanks to careful breeding programs at Toronto and Vancouver Zoo, the population has grown to around 250, but this is still a difficult situation. Further conservation is needed to allow the population to continue growing.
Similarly, the red wolf faces extinction if they do not receive help soon. Native to eastern U.S. states, the red wolf loses more of its habitat with each year that passes, and there are believed only to be 50 individuals left.
The leading causes of their loss of habitat are human encroachment due to the building of homes and roads, environmental changes caused by rising temperatures, and an increase in competition for resources in an ever-dwindling space. A breeding program was established in 1973 to reintroduce red wolves to areas where they had become locally extinct, but their numbers are still dangerously low.
Can Animal Extinction Be Prevented?
While many causes of extinction are based in nature and beyond our control, we can still take many steps to prevent animal extinctions during our lifetime.
Simple things such as volunteering to pick litter in your local area will make a huge difference to native wildlife. Discarded plastic ends up in our oceans and can be life-threatening to marine life. Birds, fish, turtles, and seals have all been caught up in plastic from beer cans, milk cartons, and plastic bags. The more we focus on responsible removal of rubbish and recycling plastics, the less ends up in our oceans.
You can also find volunteer placements at rescue centers that care for wild animals caught in poachers’ snares, young animals orphaned due to the loss of their mother, and animals taken in due to habitat loss. Volunteer not only helps the animals at the centers, but you can also help raise awareness in your local community to prevent the same thing from happening to more animals.
Adopting animals from local zoos, wildlife parks, and charities gives them vital funding to continue their conservation efforts for wild animals. Whether to stop poaching, logging, or reducing carbon emissions, adopting animals goes a long way to ensuring these projects can achieve their goals and protect more animals from extinction.
You can do this from your backyard for local wildlife. Planting nectar-rich or pollen-rich plants will help provide vital resources for local bees. Without bees, our food supplies would be in serious trouble. Bees and other insects pollinate approximately 70% of the world’s crops, so protecting them is vital to our future.
Bees and other insects also help pollinate flowers, which absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and create oxygen. The more flowers, bushes, and trees there are, the better we can reduce the effects of climate change.
Installing a bird feeder or nectar feeder will allow all manner of wild critters to find food, even during the winter months when seeds, nuts, and berries are no longer available. There are hundreds of species of birds native to North America facing extinction due to the loss of resources. One bird feeder can provide nourishment for hundreds of animals in your neighborhood.
If you have a birdbath in your garden, disinfect it once a month as many diseases can be transmitted via stagnant water. Empty the water, use a disinfectant to clean the birdbath, rinse it thoroughly, and add fresh water.
Finally, take care when driving late at night or on rural roads. Many roads cut through natural habitats, meaning animals need to cross roads to move through their territory. Unfortunately, wild animals do not have any road sense, and often, their flight response causes them to dart in front of traffic.
If you are traveling at speed, the animal you are approaching may not get out of your way in time. Lowering your speed and keeping an eye out for movement along the road’s sides can help prevent accidents.
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GC Volunteers. (2018, November 28). 5 primary Causes of Extinction. Retrieved from Preserving Plants and Wildlife: https://gcvolunteers.org/2018/11/28/5-primary-causes-of-extinction/
Gerardo Ceballos, P., Andrés García, P., & Paul R. Ehrlich, P. (2010). The Sixth Extinction Crisis, Loss of Animal Populations and Species. Journal of Cosmology, 1821-1831.
Strauss, B. (2019, October 24). Top 10 Reasons Plants and Animals Go Extinct. Retrieved from ThoughtCo: https://www.thoughtco.com/reasons-animals-go-extinct-3889931
University of WIsconson-Eau Claire. (2015, May 31). Extinction: The Death of Everything. Retrieved from University of WIsconson-Eau Claire: https://people.uwec.edu/jolhm/EH4/Extinction/CausesLink.html
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.