Extinctions Important in Evolution


Extinction can help to increase biodiversity, rather than being destructive, by letting new species fill the niches left by those that die out, and even if 99% of all species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct, without the demise of dinosaurs, mammals and birds would never have come to dominate the planet.


A recent  Natural History Museum exhibition aimed to highlight this, featuring creatures like the great auk – a  flightless, penguin-like bird hunted to extinction in the mid-19th century – the most scientifically accurate model of the bird ever assembled constructed by taxidermists as centrepiece of the exhibition dedicated to extinct species.


80 lost species were  included, the curators hoping to raise awareness that extinction can actually have a positive effect on nature through their Not the End of the World? show. They claim that the extinction of the giant Irish elk – around 11,000 years ago – benefitted rival species. Indeed, a model of the elk’s 12ft antlers –it was the largest ever known deer species – will be on display. This exhibition was a fascinating glimpse into the ancient, long-lost world that was the earth not so very long ago.


Also featured were  recreations of dinosaurs – the dodo – the alaotra grebe (a small Madagascan Waterbird which only officially became extinct in 2010, the modelling the bird was very difficult as only one photograph is known to exist) – alongside the flightless giant elephant bird and some modern species, including the tiger and the orang-utan, which are on the brink of extinction. It is important that such shows are held, especially as it helps promote environmental awareness in the youngsters who will shape the future.

Dodo, based on Roelant Savery's 1626 painting ...

Dodo, based on Roelant Savery’s 1626 painting of a stuffed specimen– note the two same-side feet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The great auk was once widespread across the North Atlantic, mating for life, with a 4in bill, and stubby 6in wings, which it used to propel itself underwater – they were excellent divers – could hold their breath for 15 minutes and reach depths of more than 3,000ft. Perfectly at home in the water, they would swim more than 300 miles from shore.


The problem was, however, that they were extremely cumbersome on land and thus easy prey for hunters. Mass-slaughtered for meat, eggs, feathers and oil, their numbers plummeted and in 1844, the last confirmed pair were killed., Natural History Museum exhibition developer, Alex Fairhead commented that extinction has driven the  biodiversity on earth, and is the reason why we have the variety of life around us today, so since it can be a creative force just as much as a destructive one, it may not always be a bad thing.

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