Errol Fuller’s new book is a visual lament.
“Lost Animals” is a handsome but sad record of animals that existed for millennia — long enough for photography to be invented — but have now disappeared from the face of the Earth. The images are accompanied by short, evocative texts about the creatures and the naturalists who recorded their existence.
As Fuller’s introduction acknowledges, most of the pictures in the book are of poor quality, since many were taken in difficult circumstances with primitive equipment. In some ways, that makes them all the more poignant. To compensate for these limitations, the appendix includes paintings of many of the creatures, including some by John James Audubon.
Among the animals featured are the thylacines, also called Tasmanian tigers because of their stripes. In fact, writes Fuller, a British writer who has also written books about the dodo and the auk, the animals looked more like dogs than like tigers, and they were marsupials, related to kangaroos. Carnivores that preyed on sheep, many were shot by farmers. In addition, it is believed that they could not withstand competition from dingoes brought to Australia by aborigines, Fuller notes. The last known thylacine died in 1936 in a zoo. According to Fuller, plausible rumors said a few others survived in the wild, but experts believe 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.”
Like the thylacines, the ivory-billed woodpecker has been the subject of rumor. Despite a flurry of headlines in 2005 saying the bird had been sighted in Arkansas, almost all experts believe it has been extinct since the 1940s. Roughly 20 inches long, with spectacular black and white plumage, the bird’s song was extensively recorded by naturalist James Tanner. The bird began declining as soon as European civilization began making inroads into its native habitat, now part of the southeastern United States: “Human interference (or even proximity) appears to have been something that birds of this species could not withstand,” according to Fuller.
Another animal featured is the laughing owl, named for its unusual cry. One early European settler in New Zealand said he could attract the bird by playing his accordion. “It was probably this docility . . . that made these owls susceptible to attack from introduced ferrets, weasels and cats and, ultimately, hastened their extinction,” Fuller writes. The last widely accepted record of a laughing owl was one found dead — it subsequently was stuffed — in 1914.
Fuller also draws attention to the fate of the Caribbean monk seal and the paradise parrot. Christopher Columbus was the first European to kill and eat the Caribbean monk seal. This encounter began a pattern of hunting the seals — mostly for their oil and skins rather than their meat — that lasted for centuries, until the last reliable sighting of the species occurred in 1952.
In 1844, the naturalist John Gilbert identified a new, beautiful parrot with a remarkable array of colors — blue, green, yellow, red and brown — in the Australian outback. A little more than a year later, he was killed during a fight with aborigines; the last view of the paradise parrot he had discovered was in 1928. The likely reasons for the parrot’s decline were the loss of seeds it lived on when lands were taken over for cattle and sheep grazing, as well as being hunted by such non-native predators as rats and foxes.