environmental

What’s the first species humans drove to extinction?

The dodo? The woolly mammoth? Think again.

Sometime in the late 1600s, in the lush forests of Mauritius, the very last dodo took its last breath. After centuries of untroubled ferreting in the tropical undergrowth, this species met its untimely end at the hands of humans, who had arrived on the island less than 100 years before. With their penchant for hunting, habitat destruction and the release of invasive species, humans undid millions of years of evolution, and swiftly removed this bird from the face of the Earth.

Since then, the dodo has nestled itself in our conscience as the first prominent example of human-driven extinction. We’ve also used the dodo to assuage our own guilt: the creature was fat, lazy and unintelligent — and as popular story goes, those traits sealed its inevitable fate.

But in fact, we couldn’t be more wrong, said Julian Hume, a paleontologist and research associate with the National History Museum in the United Kingdom. He studies the fossils of extinct species, and has devoted a portion of his career to correcting the dodo’s dismal reputation. By digitally modelling the remains of a dodo’s skeleton, he’s produced a 3D digital reconstruction that draws an altogether different picture of a bird that was faster, more athletic and far brainier than popular culture has led us to believe. “It was nothing like this big, fat, bulgy thing that was just waddling around. This bird was super adapted to the environment of Mauritius,” Hume told Live Science. Instead, humans’ unrelenting exploitation was the real culprit behind the dodo’s untimely death. 

But that’s not all we’ve gotten wrong. Despite the commonly held belief, the dodo actually wasn’t the first creature that humans drove to extinction — not by a long shot. In fact, humanity was wiping out the world’s fauna thousands of years before we set eyes on the dodo. “There was certainly a lot more going on before and after that event,” said Hume.

So, if the iconic dodo wasn’t the first species we drove to the brink, then which animal gets this disheartening title, instead?

All of this is to say that humans have systematically wiped out the species around us from almost the beginning of our history. Our migration prompted “a disaster across the world,” said Hume. “We weren’t very pleasant.” Unfortunately, we’ve continued our ancestors’ legacy, with, among thousands of other species, the eradication of Madagascan hippos 1,000 years ago, the loss of moa birds in New Zealand 600 years ago, and the decimation of passenger pigeons 106 years ago. We are also responsible for ongoing extinctions today.

But this still hasn’t answered the question of what species went extinct first. And here’s the catch: the data on human-driven extinction across the planet is only reliable as far back as about 125,000 years— but that doesn’t mean we weren’t driving animals to extinction before that in Africa, too. In fact, there’s compelling evidence to suggest that before humans migrated out, they unleashed their hunting instincts on species there as well. 

Smith’s research has revealed that the average body size of African animals 125,000 years ago was only half that of species that were present on other continents around the world. “Africa is one of the largest continents, so it should have had a mean body size similar to that of the Americas and Eurasia where it was roughly about 100 kilograms [220 lbs.],” Smith said. “The fact that it didn’t suggests that there had already been an effect of hominids on megafauna in Africa, prior to 125,000 years ago.” 

In essence, because the rest of history tells us that humans are good at dispatching the largest creatures in an ecosystem, we can make a fairly safe assumption that hominids in Africa at the time could have been responsible for extinctions going even further back in time.

Still, there’s no way to know for sure what that ‘first’ species would have been — though Smith takes a wild guess: “It was probably some species in the elephant family. But whether that’s palaeomastodon, or stegodon” — the latter being a behemoth with tusks that measured 10 feet (3 meters) long – “I couldn’t tell you.”

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