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Extinction: Not the End of the World at London’s Natural History Museum


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A few weeks ago John Conway and your humble blog-author visited the Natural History Museum (London) to see and review the new exhibit Extinction: Not the End of the World (thanks to Becky Caruana for organising this). Since the exhibit is heavily tetrapod-themed, discussion and review here is entirely appropriate and, while there is a small entrance fee, my basic recommendation is that NHM visitors especially interested in tetrapods should definitely go and have a look. And so, on to assorted thoughts and opinions on the exhibition…

Chasmosaurus belli skull on display at the front of the exhibition. I don't recognise this specimen from the literature. Does anyone else know it? No, it's not ROM 843. UPDATE: OH YES IT IS. Thanks to Jordan Mallon.

Extinction: Not the End of the World combines our knowledge of geological extinctions with recent, anthropogenic ones to ask pressing questions about, and raise awareness of, the modern biological crisis. On entry, we immediately see a big (replica) skull of a Chasmosaurus. That alone took up a bit of my time, since ceratopsian skulls are fascinating and there’s lots of really interesting things to check out whenever confronted with them (in this case: the gigantic and complex nasal opening, the anatomy of the frill around the gigantic fenestrae, the bizarre supracranial cavity… that’s right, a flask-shaped cavity on the skull roof, in between the eyes). Also at the entrance to the exhibit are giant digital screens that show changing images of diverse taxa, posed alongside questions about extinction, its inevitability, and about the possible future of our world and our species.

Taxiderm specimen of Spoon-billed sandpiper in the exhibition. It breeds in far eastern Russia, winters in south Asia, and is critically endangered and is in desperate need of help: illegal hunting is one of the main reasons for decline.

The exhibit itself is decked out with an interesting panel-wooden display furniture that you should be able to see in some of the photos here. Both free-standing display units and installations around the edges of the front part of the exhibition tackle declining modern species (a free-standing case is devoted to the plight of the critically endangered Spoon-billed sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus of eastern Asia, perhaps down to less than 200 birds*), geological extinction events (I didn’t look at that bit; too familiar), the decline and extinction of Megaloceros (cue obligatory use of enormous, ha ha, rack), and recent avian extinctions.

* Check out Saving the Spoon-billed sandpiper.

The ‘avian extinctions’ case was one of the highlights for me. A really nice Great auk Pinguinus impennis (presumably a model: there are scarcely any stuffed specimens in existence, those you see in museums are typically constructed from bits of pigeons), posed in a diving posture, is positioned alongside a Passenger pigeon Ectopistes migratorius, moa remains (including a set of feathers), and an Aepyornis egg.

Extinct birds case. Moa foot and feathers, Heteralocha, Ectopistes, Pinguinus, Aepyornis egg, and Julian Hume painting at back. Photo by Darren Naish.

Of the Huia and the Dodo

Heads of male (above) and female Huia in the NHM's old (and AMAZING) bird anatomy display. The Huia supposedly became extinct around 1907, though sightings were reported in the years following. Photo by Darren Naish.

A male and female Huia Heteralocha acutirostris lie next to one another in the same case. Huia are fascinating (I’ve written about them on Tet Zoo before: see Sexual dimorphism in bird bills: commoner than we’d thought) and a naïve viewer would certainly be surprised by the fact that the two very differently shaped birds are the male and female of the same species. However, there are already two other male and female Huia pairs on display elsewhere in the same museum, so the novelty is not as… novel as it should be, perhaps.

Julian Hume’s painting of a Passenger pigeon flock passing overhead forms the background to this case. You might know the same painting from its appearance on the cover of the Poyser Extinct Birds book that Julian produced with Michael Walters (Hume & Walters 2012). The book is very expensive and I don’t own it.

On the issue of artwork, one bit – not a major feature, just an image scattered round the edges of the exhibit – is really terrible and I’d rather not set eyes on it again… it’s a silhouette, supposedly of a sabretooth cat but actually just a bastardised image of a tiger, kitted out with enormously long, absurdly super-slender ‘canines’. Zero points to whoever designed it.

Excellent Dodo in the exhibition. The artist needs credit - >>who is responsible<<?

A reconstructed Dodo Raphus cucullatus – substantially better looking and more accurate than the two the NHM has in its bird gallery – is the centrepiece of a small section nearby on Mauritius. The Dodo is great: I’d like to know more about its construction and who did it, since all I know is that it was specially commissioned for the exhibition. Out of curiosity, I just checked Jolyn Parrish’s The Dodo and the Solitaire: a Natural History (Parrish 2013), to see if there’s a section on dodo models. There isn’t. Incidentally, my review of that impressive book is in press for Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Memories of Green

The Dodo part of the exhibit isn’t just about the Dodo – after all, we’ve all heard those stories a million times before about how it was naïve and easy to kill, was bludgeoned into extinction by hungry sailors who either did or did not enjoy eating its flesh etc. etc. etc. – but also about the sad story of deforestation and habitat loss on Mauritius. I was reminded of the final chapter in Parrish (2013), titled Memories of Green (itself a reference to one of Van Gelis’s acoustic tracks in Blade Runner).

Humans, Agents of Entropy. Each of those dots on the map of Mauritius shows where deforestation occurred. We're left with tiny pockets of greenery.

Indeed, that’s in keeping with the melancholy feel to the whole exhibition, cleverly (and I assume deliberately) created through the combination of quiet background music, the rather rustic exhibit furniture, the nature of the exhibits, and the low lighting. As John and I discussed in our TetZoo podcast review of the exhibit, the low lighting might be a deliberate ‘moody’ touch, it might be a necessity to reduced light damage to the taxiderm animals and models in the display, or it might also be a constraint caused by the difficulty of working in the confines of the Victorian era, stonework architecture of the NHM.

The issue of modern declines and extinctions are again brought home with sections on the near-extinct or extinct Baiji or Chinese river dolphin Lipotes vexillifer and critically endangered and perhaps near-extinct Slender-billed curlew Numenius tenuirostris, both depressing stories of human lack of concern and wanton destruction (Baiji decline was caused by habitat loss, overfishing, entanglement in fishing gear, electrocution caused by electric fishing, damming, and acoustic and industrial pollution; the curlew is in trouble due to excessive hunting on its wintering grounds). Tigers, the tuna fishing industry, the massive impact of alien animals like rabbits and feral cats and other sad stories are also covered.

The NHM has a long and respected history of making accurate, full-size cetacean models. I don't know who made this Baiji, but it's very accurate. Photo by Darren Naish.

Back from the brink… or, still teetering on the brink, anyway

Forest owlet specimen (the actual specimen is lying horizontally: I've rotated it for convenience). The label says "Not a Meinertzhagen specimen. Collected by J. Davidson, Tolada, Khandesh 4 December 1884". The history of this specimen will be familiar to those who've read Rasmussen & Collar (1999) and Weidensaul (2002).

The point is also made that species can recover from the edge of extinction thanks to conservation efforts and captive breeding, plus species thought to be extinct can of course be rediscovered at some point. Such cases – a few have been announced lately, including the hylid frog Isthomhyla rivularis from Costa Rica, the Bururi long-fingered frog Cardioglossa cyaneospila from tropical Africa, and the Hula painted frog Latonia nigriventer from Israel* – are usually touted as good news. They are, but news of the discoveries needs to be tempered with the fact that the populations concerned are typically in dire trouble, reduced to small remnants and hardly healthy and destined for perpetuation. And don’t forget that declaring a species extinct when the chance that it might persist can be extremely bad news: if it’s extinct, people give up on conservation efforts altogether, the classic example of this phenomenon (termed Romeo Error) being the Cebu flowerpecker Dicaeum quadricolor (Collar 1998).

* As fans of fossil aurans will know, the Hula painted frog is especially remarkable in that it seems to be an extant member of Latonia, previously only thought to be known from the fossil record of the Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene and Pleistocene of Europe (Biton et al. 2013).

On the subject of rediscoveries, I was pretty thrilled to see a taxiderm specimen of Forest owlet Heteroglaux blewitti, thought extinct between 1884 and 1997 and now known to be persisting at several well separate Indian locations. A model of a West Indian Ocean coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae features in the exhibit too. Various other models and taxiderm specimens are scattered throughout the exhibit.

Latimeria: not a tetrapod, but still worthy of attention. Nice model. You might recognise the pose as that of a famous pickled (and now completely bleached white) specimen often shown in books.

Three interactive experiences

I remember three features from the back part of the exhibit. Number 1 is an interactive audio display on songbirds, Number 2 is a giant computer game, Number 3 is The Cage.

The installation itself features a large screen and two sets of headphones.

Number 1 is actually a 5 minute recording, titled Early Birds and produced (via commission from Channel 4) by Suky Best. It combines recordings of British birdsong with interview segments whereby people reflect on birdsong and what it means, personally. Museums today are full of this sort of thing (well, arty museums that underwent modern redesigns are, anyway) and what I’ve just described certainly sounds twee and more to do with ‘feelings’ than education. But, actually, I liked it. There is, after all, a deeply personal, emotional attachment to nature among all of us that we need to explore and celebrate on occasion. Why, you might ask, was this included in an exhibition on extinction? The reason: songbirds are in decline and extinction is plausible for many populations.

It really makes me cross when I hear people (typically either ill-informed people who don’t regularly interact with the natural world, or those with a covert agenda) say that things are fine, or even that things are better than they ever have been. Basic research and observation on most ecosystems, species and populations will show that this is a blatant falsehood, and even those of us living in areas with familiar, low-diversity and (arguably) bland communities of species – I reside in southern England, just sayin’ – can see an obvious, pervasive, ubiquitous decline of living things across the board. There really are less fish, less bees, less wasps, less songbirds, less bats, less lizards and so on than there used to be, even if you’re looking at things on the scale of a few decades, never mind centuries or millennia. The message I personally take from the songbird section of the exhibit is that we’re – if you’ll pardon the expression – pissing on our own shoes, since our own lives are poorer, blander, emptier than they could be, should be, or – perhaps – need to be.

I'm so lame -- I can only survive for 30 MILLION YEARS.

Number 2. A major feature near the end of the exhibit is a giant interactive computer display featuring a game called Survivor (subtitled ‘How long can you survive?’). Via hard-to-master, touch-free hand control, you move a population of small, imaginary creatures across a giant, constantly changing landscape. You have to avoid glaciation events, exploding volcanoes and so on, and you have to keep your population going by finding suitable food patches. It’s ok. I managed to survive for 30 million years, which ain’t bad. I ordinarily despise interactive computer displays in museum exhibits. They date quickly and take up space that really should be spent on something far more worthwhile, and (apologies here if I sound elitist or misanthropic) they frequently give kids and other visitors the excuse to do the same old crap they do every other day of their lives (look at screens, play videogames, use touchscreens) when they really could be treated to a more unique experience. Survivor was ok, but I don’t think anyone would play it and really come to better appreciate or understand extinction more than they already did. It seemed like something stuck there to keep kids happy.

The Survivor game, Conway for scale. It doesn't photograph well. Nor does the Survivor game.

Actually, the game is quite similar to John’s (as yet unreleased, I think) Animalcules. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence but it looks like a pretty remarkable one. John discusses the issue in the podcast (ep 10).

John and leaves, many bearing important messages.

Number 3. Finally, at the end of the exhibit is a sort of big cage: a symbolic tree. Visitors are supposed to write messages on card leaves and hook them to the cage, thus covering the ‘tree’ in messages. Reading them was great fun. Many were inscribed with sincere messages devoted to the plight of the Giant panda, Tiger and so on, and some were covered with intelligent comments about over-population, pollution, and how we should be better stewards of the planet. Of course, anonymity gives people the chance to be silly as well, so there are also leaves marked with such messages as “Glad to see we’re winning – keep it up!”, “Save pigs! Bacon is needed!”, “I wish dinosaurs still existed!”, “Mother Earth is crying! Humans = bad, Animals = good”, “Give bears super-powers”, and “My favourite bit was the chainsaw”.

To wrap-up, I thought pretty highly of the exhibition. It contained enough interesting specimens, worthy bits of information and interactive components to keep me busy and entertained, it was suitably designed in view of the melancholy topic, and it was neither cramped nor empty-looking. Four stars out of five.

Extinction: Not the End of the World shows at the Natural History Museum (London) until September 8th. Read more about the exhibition here at the NHM site. I believe that it’s a travelling exhibit and hence it might show up elsewhere.

Refs – -

Biton, R., Geffen, E., Vences, M., Cohen, O., Bailon, S., Rabinovich, R., Malka, Y., Oron, T., Boistel, R., Brumfeld, V. & Gafny, S. 2013. The rediscovered Hula painted frog is a living fossil. Nature Communications 4 (1959) doi:10.1038/ncomms2959

Collar, N. J. 1998. Extinction by assumption: or, the Romeo Error on Cebu. Oryx 32, 239-243.

Hume, J. P. & Walters, M. 2012. Extinct Birds. A & C Black, London.

Parish, J. C. 2013. The Dodo and the Solitaire: a Natural History. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis.

Rasmussen, P. C. & Collar, N. J. 1999. A major specimen fraud in the Forest Owlet Heteroglaux (Athene auct.) blewittiIbis 141, 11-21.

Weidensaul, S. 2002. The Ghost With Trembling Wings. North Point Press, New York.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com!

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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Panimerus 3:57 pm 08/15/2013

    About Megaloceros… In the Vienna Museum of Natural History I saw a cast where the label indicated its surviving into historic times – I can’t recall the exact date, but it was surprisingly recent. Subsequently I have tried to find this date again in the technical literature, but this has not been fruitful – the latest published dates of remains are from the early Holocene. In popular treatments, however, the claim appears sporadically. Paleocraft dot com writes that “dwindling herds may have survived in continental Europe into historic times as recently as 500 B.C”, for instance.
    Is there any good evidence for such claims?

    Link to this
  2. 2. AlHazen 4:13 pm 08/15/2013

    Don’t apologize for Latimeria — after all, it’s closer to being a Tetrapod than Charcharodon was! (Grin!)

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  3. 3. Hydrarchos 8:50 pm 08/15/2013

    “critically endangered and perhaps near-extinct Slender-billed curlew Numenius tenuirostris… is in trouble due to excessive hunting on its wintering grounds”

    I thought N. tenuirostris was almost-definitely all the way extinct, and rumours of its continued survival were in the same borderline-cryptozoology ballpark as those of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s. Wasn’t the last time one was supposedly seen alive in the 1990s (and the reliability of that sighting, IIRC, was hotly debated by twitchers)?

    Also, I’m *almost* sure I’ve seen that Baiji model, or at least one extremely like it, at the Rothschild museum in Tring… isn’t that part of the NHM now, or am I getting mixed up with Whipsnade and London Zoo?

    “even those of us living in areas with familiar, low-diversity and (arguably) bland communities of species – I reside in southern England, just sayin’ – can see an obvious, pervasive, ubiquitous decline of living things across the board. There really are less fish, less bees, less wasps, less songbirds, less bats, less lizards and so on than there used to be, even if you’re looking at things on the scale of a few decades, never mind centuries or millennia.”

    I’m not totally sure if my experience matches up with that. In my (early 1980s) suburban southern-English childhood, literally the only birds I saw in my estate (a fairly leafy one on the edge of a medium-sized town, within a mile of a river and cattle farmland) were House sparrows, Starlings and Black-headed gulls, and the occasional magpie, crow or pigeon. My most vivid childhood “local patch” bird memories were *one* Goldfinch and *one* Sparrowhawk in about 10 years. (I did see other birds and wildlife in the wider local area, but still…)

    30 years later, in a much bigger city, I see Goldfinches and Sparrowhawks on an at-least-weekly basis, along with many other species (Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Blue, Great and Long-tailed tits, Jays – which seemed like a near-legendary elusive rarity to me as a child – Herring and Lesser Black-backed gulls, Song and Mistle thrushes… although oddly now sparrows and even starlings seem to be almost rare! Neither is in my top 10 most commonly seen species, House Sparrow probably not even in the top 20.) So I think some species have declined, while others (perhaps filling in the gaps) have become commoner. (Of course, it could just have been that I was less observant as a child…)

    Anyway, hopefully I’ll get to check out the exhibition at some point. I have a vague memory that I might have seen it (or one on the same theme) advertised at the Manchester (University) Museum when I was near there a few months back, but didn’t have time to go look at it…

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  4. 4. JoseD 10:05 pm 08/15/2013

    @Darren: “I ordinarily despise interactive computer displays in museum exhibits. They date quickly and take up space that really should be spent on something far more worthwhile, and…they frequently give kids and other visitors the excuse to do the same old crap they do every other day of their lives…when they really could be treated to a more unique experience. Survivor was ok, but I don’t think anyone would play it and really come to better appreciate or understand extinction more than they already did. It seemed like something stuck there to keep kids happy.”

    To be fair, there are WAY better exhibit games. For example, in “Geckos: Tails to Toepads”, there’s a game in which you play a gecko predator & try to spot the camouflaged gecko in e/photo w/in a limited time. Besides being simple/straightforward (I don’t like overly complex/time-consuming exhibit games), I liked that it reminded me of how diverse geckos are (especially camouflage-wise), that it allowed me to compare the different kinds side-by-side, & that it emphasized the importance of gecko camouflage (I.e. At the end of the game, you’re rated out of 5 using 5 different gecko predators; IIRC, 5=lemur followed by cat, hawk, & either snake or scorpion).

    @Darren: “My favourite bit was the chainsaw”

    Was that person referring to something deforestation-related in the exhibition? Also, was there anything about the recovery of Mauritius since the ’90s (in reference to Episode 10 of “The Life of Birds”)?

    1 more thing: While at the NHM this time, did you see the Dinosaur Hall &, if so, has it gotten any better since Heinrich’s visit (go here)?

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  5. 5. JoseD 10:31 pm 08/15/2013

    Almost forgot.

    @Darren: “Number 3 is The Cage.”

    Was I the only 1 reminded of the “Bird Cage” scene from JP3 when you said that?

    @Darren: “Number 3. Finally, at the end of the exhibit is a sort of big cage: a symbolic tree. Visitors are supposed to write messages on card leaves and hook them to the cage, thus covering the ‘tree’ in messages.”

    If I was able to see that exhibition in person, I would’ve wrote something like this on my leaf (I’d have to keep it short b/c I have trouble writing small): Aldo Leopold put it best when he said, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

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  6. 6. Dartian 2:23 am 08/16/2013

    Extinct birds case.

    Why is there a butterfly in it?

    A reconstructed Dodo Raphus cucullatus – substantially better looking and more accurate than the two the NHM has in its bird gallery

    Indeed – the latter look like amorphous feathery blobs by comparison.

    quiet background music

    Background music? In a natural history museum? Interesting.

    light damage to the taxiderm animals and models in the display

    When I recently vistited the NHM (alas, I didn’t see the extinction exhibit), I was frankly somewhat shocked to see that some valuable specimens, particularly in the mammal galleries, have been allowed to be exposed to direct sunlight for presumably decades. As a result, many specimens were badly faded. The most dramatic example of this was the mounted Tasmanian devil: its originally black fur has now become almost cream-coloured! And this could have been avoided simply and cheaply by covering the windows with curtains! Grr!

    Or, as Mr. Burns once said: “Since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun. I shall do the next best thing: block it out.;)

    interactive computer displays in museum exhibits [...] date quickly

    So true, so true…

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  7. 7. naishd 3:55 am 08/16/2013

    Thanks for comments. Panimerus (comment # 1): my understanding is that the youngest Megaloceros specimens are about 7700 years old… that’s a bit different from 500 B.C.! (B.C.E., whatever).

    Hydrarchos (comment # 3): I confess to being somewhat confused about the status of the Slender-billed curlew. I’ve been to the region in Morocco where it was “reliably” seen in recent years, and you get the impression from what’s written about this region that the bird might still be seen there if only you’re lucky enough. Most sources still talk about it being critically endangered, and refer to sightings made in the 1990s and some from as recently as 2004 and 2007. Of course, it may be so ‘critically endangered’ that it has since become extinct — does anybody know the latest news?

    Darren

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  8. 8. naishd 4:14 am 08/16/2013

    Oh yeah, Hydrarchos (comment # 3): you may be right about the Baiji model previously being at Tring (having said that, I don’t recall seeing it there). Tring is a branch of the NHM, so it’s plausible that display pieces could be shared between them and South Kensington.

    As for birds and suburbia – not everything is in decline, but things are complicated. Firstly, some European (especially UK) birds that people now proclaim as success stories (e.g., Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, European goldfinch) aren’t definitely success stories at all: instead, the birds have managed to get back to a population that more resembles the pre-1940s/50s one, their rarity between the 1960s and 80s or so being terribly low and the result of persecution, pesticide-related death etc. This is known as ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ (example: European goldfinch populations are up almost 80% relative to pre-2009 numbers, but they had underdone a long, steady decline in the years prior to this: I’ve heard that the post-2009 populations approach the condition prior to this period of decline. And read on…). Secondly, some birds that seem to be doing well in some areas (Herring gulls are the classic examples) only seem to be doing well because they’ve expanded into suburban and urban areas, hence we see them a lot now. But the populations as a whole are in decline (chronic decline, even). Thirdly, while there are species that are doing well (Wood pigeons), there are others that really are a major cause of concern: House sparrows, European starlings, and thrushes of all kinds, Hen harriers are apparently in critical condition right now…

    Darren

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  9. 9. Chabier G. 6:35 am 08/16/2013

    I wonder if evident decline of urban house sparrows, in Spain at least, could be related with the exponentially increasing populations of Collared Dove (arrived here in the 80′s) and Wood Pidgeons (demographic boom in our cities since late 90′s).
    Another cause of concern, because it seemingly means warmer climate conditions, are the phenological changes shown here by some species, e.g, Sardinian Warbler has spread its range, both in altitude and latitude, and now it’s a sedentary species, and wintering Hoopoes are now a frequent sight in the Ebro Valley. But, otherwise, a former mountain dweller, the Black Redstart, has seen this year breeding in the city of Zaragoza, and Mistle Thrush (in past decades limited to mountain forests), is thriving in this city since some years ago, after having colonized riparian woods along the whole valley. Things are not simple.
    And about videogames and the like in museums, I hate them. The worst thing, for me, is that medium is often more important than contents. Many special effects, beauty colours and images, and superficial, when not spurious, information.

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  10. 10. SteveKuntz 9:43 am 08/16/2013

    Any decline of House Sparrows and Starlings in Europe must have been picked up by America, because they are all over the place over here.

    Upstate New York, at least, is much better for wildlife than it was decades ago. As a budding naturalist as a child in the 1970s, I tried to make a “zoo” and could only fill it with toads and insects. Seeing a deer or a squirrel was a rare occurrence. Now, people have to protect their flowers and gardens from deer, rabbits, and woodchucks, even in the city. Coyotes and black bear are back. I could drive around town and guarantee you certain places to see wild turkey or woodpeckers. I am constantly filling in chipmunk holes in my lawn. Farmers have problems with beavers damming a creek and flooding their fields. Several years ago a wayward moose wandered through my county. I’m in a populated area, not in the Adirondacks!

    I think in my area, it’s because there aren’t many hunters, and kids don’t walk around shooting every thing that moves anymore, and a lot of farmland has reverted back to woods and meadows. Also, the 1970s was probably the peak of the pollution around here. The air and water are a lot cleaner now.

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  11. 11. Lars Dietz 10:09 am 08/16/2013

    “Out of curiosity, I just checked Jolyn Parrish’s The Dodo and the Solitaire: a Natural History (Parrish 2013), to see if there’s a section on dodo models. There isn’t.”

    Not in the book itself, but there’s a catalogue in the online supplement. And there is a lot of other stuff on his site as well, such as transcriptions of historical accounts and an annotated bibliography.

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  12. 12. barndad 11:40 am 08/16/2013

    The reference for early Holocene survival of Megaloceros is Stuart et al. (2004) Nature vol 431, p684, with a late C14 date of 6816 ± 35 radiocarbon years BP for a specimen from the Urals. There is confusion over Irish elk dates due to some results from the Isle of Man (Gonzalez et al. Nature 2000 vol 405 p753) which gave an early Holocene (9000 C14 years) signal but when re-dated with better preparation were pushed back into the Pleistocene. I’ve heard it mentioned repeatedly that the German word Schelch may refer to Megaloceros even in medieval works (this is also mentioned on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_elk) although the evidence is not convincing to me.

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  13. 13. Lars Dietz 2:00 pm 08/16/2013

    I’ve read a bit about the “Schelch” question, and there’s indeed no evidence that it really means the Irish elk. The word is mentioned once in the Nibelungenlied (quoted in the Wikipedia article) and there are a few older mentions of an Old High German word “sc(h)elo” in hunting laws. Practically all large European ungulates have been suggested as identification of that word based on various reasons. The idea that it refers to the Irish elk was based on the fact that scelo was sometimes used as a German translatio of “tragelaphus” in medieval glosses, and the animal described under that name in medieval books was thought to be the Irish elk. However, the idea that the Irish elk could have been around for that long and therefore could have been meant, which came up in the early 19th century, was inspired by an illustration from around 1500 that actually shows a fallow deer. If “tragelaphus” was used for a real animal by medieval authors, it was probably an elk (moose). But this is probably not what “Schelch” means in the Nibelungenlied, as the elk was already mentioned in the previous line of the text. It’s now generally thought that the word referred to a male wild horse, as “scelo” was also used for stallions used in breeding as well as for wild horses.
    The most thorough article on this is probably still this one from 1916 (in German), which very thoroughly refutes all the supposed arguments for survival of the Irish elk to medieval times. Despite this, annotations to modern editions of the Nibelungenlied still say that the Irish elk was probably meant!

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  14. 14. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:40 pm 08/16/2013

    @Chasmosaurus skull
    I wonder if this hole on the top of the skull might have contained a scent gland, and one function of the shield was to spread the scent all around. Any evidence that this hole was big in some individuals (eg. males) and small or absent in others (females and immatures)?

    @Slender-billed Curlew
    BirdLife lists an officially accepted record from Hungary in 2001. Bulgarian ornithologists published observations on Black Sea coast at least until 2004.
    The only source which treats it as extinct in Dutch Rarities Committee, however this is a birdwatching body and very idiosyncratic. They are likely under a pressure to take off an un-twitchable species off the Dutch list as a “blocker” for listers. SBC occurs mostly in countries with very poor birdwatching coverage, so it is very likely that some are overlooked. Sad story of this species, anyway. Attempts to gather knowledge in 1990s were confused by identification problems and non-intervention. Most likely this species became rare due to conversion of steppe to agriculture in the Soviet Union.

    @Decline of wildlife
    In C Europe, the picture is mixed. Species associated with low intensity farming and dry open habitats are in big decline. But many forest species are increasing (as are forest), and most large mammals and birds increased spectacularly from the low point in early 20. century.

    Link to this
  15. 15. CS Shelton 11:28 pm 08/16/2013

    I wish we could give you back our Eurasian starlings, though they are handsome and interesting. With their terrible impact on indigenous birds and huge numbers, I couldn’t feel too bad when I saw one getting slow-killed by an American crow. Every time the beak struck it let out a sad squeak.

    Link to this
  16. 16. CS Shelton 11:30 pm 08/16/2013

    PS- I know if American Eurasian starlings got loose in Europe, they’d probably spread alien parasites there. This shit is ridiculously easy to fuck up and horribly difficult to repair.

    Link to this
  17. 17. David Marjanović 7:41 pm 08/17/2013

    It’s now generally thought that the word referred to a male wild horse, as “scelo” was also used for stallions used in breeding as well as for wild horses.
    The most thorough article on this is probably still this one from 1916 (in German), which very thoroughly refutes all the supposed arguments for survival of the Irish elk to medieval times.

    It says, however, that sc(h)elch did not designate a wild horse, but an old male elk. There are special names for dangerous old male loners of other species, too.

    I wonder if this hole on the top of the skull might have contained a scent gland, and one function of the shield was to spread the scent all around.

    …How would a shield spread a scent???

    Link to this
  18. 18. Perisoreus 6:05 am 08/18/2013

    I think the mixed feelings I have for this exhibition and Darren’s review somehow stem from the fact that biologists and conservationists (and curators, for that matter) are very bad at expressing or explaining why extinction is such a bad thing and why it shouldn’t happen (at least the way it is happening at the moment).They make great investigators, but bad solicitor. It’s not that much different from anthropogenic warming, where you can hear all the appeasing, reassuring, self-centered cynism over and over again.

    And I cannot help but feel that it has something to do with mistaking points of view, since Spoon-billed Sandpipers hardly are aware of species concepts and it doesn’t really matter if you’re an European Starling or an Ivory Woodpecker when you get killed. What we cherish (at least as westerners) are species, not individuals. However, we celebrate and mourn their survival or extinction as that of an individual (perfectly illustrated by single specimens whenever I walk into an exhibit). We’re missing the Dodo, not the Dodos, and maybe that’s why people would be satisfied with resurrecting a mammoth that would die in a zoo as the first and last of its species some 10 years later.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Lars Dietz 1:12 pm 08/18/2013

    “It says, however, that sc(h)elch did not designate a wild horse, but an old male elk.”

    Yes, but only because the wild horse was quite small and therefore would not be described as “grimm” (ferocious). I don’t find this especially convincing, as a wild stallion would still be rather dangerous, I wouldn’t want to get in trouble with one. He does make a good case that it’s probably one of those two possibilities, though.

    Link to this
  20. 20. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:57 pm 08/18/2013

    @16
    As any body part.

    If Darren’s book were not published, I would imagine breeding male ceratopsians breaking and pulling plant stems, spreading scent on them, and tossing plants around and carrying some on their heads like stags of some deer do.

    BTW, location of scent glands of animals is another interesting subject.

    Link to this
  21. 21. llewelly 8:45 am 08/19/2013

    These myriad declines are quite troubling, but alien big cats and other cryptids must eat something …

    (How is that for poorly justified optimism?)

    Link to this
  22. 22. Alex Kleine 6:06 pm 08/25/2013

    Is there any recent studies that indicate songbirds declining in North America like their counterparts in Europe or is this topic still an enigma?

    Link to this

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