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As the eons have seen many species come and go across the globe, you may be surprised by some of the species that once called what we now know as Iowa home.
While this list represents a very small portion of species that have gone extinct in the scope of history and prehistory, it’s important to note that the modern-day rate of extinctions is quite high. The last major extinction event was the Quartenary extinction event approximately 10,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, when nearly three out of every four large mammals in North America died out.
Did you know these animals were once “Iowans?”
Blue Pike (Sander vitreus glaucus) This fish was abundant in the Great Lakes as recently as the 1950s, but overfishing, pollution, and belated recovery efforts led to their declared extinction in 1976. Between 1885 and 1962, over a billion pounds of blue pike were harvested from the Great Lakes region, with blue pike representing as much as 50 percent of the commercial catch out of Lake Erie. This overfishing and pollution from runoff of now-banned phosphorus-based detergents led to a rapid population collapse which was unsuccessfully noted and combated in the 1950s. Today, it is unlikely that any pure blue pike exist in any of the Great Lakes, or surrounding areas like Iowa.
Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis)The only member of the parrot family to have lived north of Mexico was declared extinct in the 1920s. Originally, its range started at the eastern shores of the U.S. and stretched as far as Nebraska. The bird itself was about the
size of a grackle, with bright green body plumage and a red and yellow head. Unfortunately for them, these birds’ extensive flocking behaviors and tendency to eat crops made them targets as agricultural pests, and their bright feathers could be used in the millinery trade. Thus, the population was decimated by early farmers and hunters, so much so that a sighting was rare outside of Florida by the 1860s. Significant reduction of deciduous forest habitat is thought to have been an additional factor in their decline.
Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) Perhaps the most dramatic and best-known extinction story in modern history, passenger pigeons were so abundant when European settlers first arrived in the present-day United States that a flock could take hours to pass overhead, and population estimates for that time number in the billions. However, due to the birds’ e
xtreme colonial behavior and abundance they quickly lost habitat and were hunted to extinction in approximately 300 years. The last passenger pigeon was a captive bird named Martha, who died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.
Eastern Elk (Cervus canadensis Canadensis) Although the modern-day U.S. does have elk and even elk farming, an impressive subspecies known as the eastern elk has been declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service since 1880. These elk primarily lived in the northern and eastern continental states, including Iowa, and the last known eastern elk was shot in Pennsylvania in 1877. According to fossil analysis and written accounts, eastern elk were much larger than their western cousins. A full grown eastern elk bull could stand as high as six feet at the shoulder and weigh 1,000 pounds. By comparison, the largest modern elk in North America, called the Roosevelt elk, stands up to five feet at the shoulder and weighs approximately 700 pounds. Although eastern elk no longer exist in the U.S., their genetics may not be entirely gone from the planet. Some mixed-bloodline elk may have eastern elk lineage in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park because President Theodore Roosevelt sent the park 20 elk as a gift in 1905, 18 of which survived the journey there. Half of the animals in this shipment are believed to have been eastern elk captured in Northern Minnesota by Native Americans.
American Mastodon (Mammut americanum) The American mastodon is the youngest and best-known species in the mammut genus. Shorter and more heavily muscled than wooly mammoths, the American mastodon is thought to have had a build similar to that of modern Asian elephants. The largest individuals are estimated to have been pushing 11 feet at the shoulder and to have weighed nearly 25,000 pounds. This species, along with other mastodons in North America, went extinct near the end of the Pleistocene epoch, approximately 11,000 years ago.
American Cheetah (Genus Miracinonyx) More closely related to modern cougars than modern African cheetahs, multiple species of American cheetahs went extinct approximately 12,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene epoch. From skeleton fragments, scientists estimate that these extinct cats were approximately eight and a half feet long from tip to tail, stood about three feet tall at the shoulder, could reach up to 200 pounds and had a whopping top sprinting speed of 60 mph.
Dire Wolf (Canis dirus) Seemingly straight out of a fantasy novel, dire wolves were another mammalian loss at the end of the Pleistocene epoch. The oldest fossil thought to be a from a dire wolf was found in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and is approximately 252,000 years old based on uranium analysis. These wolves are estimated to have been about five feet long and very muscular, having weighed up to 175 pounds. For reference, that would make a large modern gray wolf (the largest living wolf species today) approximately the average size of a dire wolf, but with the dire wolf outweighing it by 25 percent. Dire wolves also had larger teeth, and their bite was 129 percent as powerful as a modern gray wolf’s.
Giant Ground Sloth (Genus Megalonyx) While sloths today are rather diminutive and considered cute, their ancient relatives were much more daunting. Various species’ fossils have been found across the globe, but the species M. jeffersonii, native to North America, was nearly 10 feet long and weighed more than 2,000 pounds. Its large tail and limbs allowed it to rear up to feed on trees, and its highly developed front claws were likely for stripping and tearing tree branches. Specimens found in southeast Iowa which may lead to a better understanding of this animal’s social structure, as fossils of an adult were found with those of two juveniles of different ages.
Saber-toothed Cats (Genus Smilodon) Built like just about any feline, Smilodon was approximately the size of a modern day tiger or lion, but more heavily muscled. Saber-toothed cats were fearsome due to their namesake canines, which could reach up to 11 inches. For a period of time, fossils show that immature smilodons actually had four canines at once, as their baby teeth didn’t fall out until the adult set had already come in. They are thought to have hunted large herbivores like ancient bison and camels, using their large canines to stab or generally rupture prey animals jugular veins and/or tracheas. These cats went extinct approximately 10,000 years ago along with many other mammals, as evidenced above.
Trilobites (Genus Trilobite) Long before mammals roamed Iowa’s ancient plains, the land was the bed of a shallow coastal sea similar to the Caribbean Sea today. Giant aquatic arthropods called trilobites flourished here starting in the Early Cambrian period (approximately 521 million years ago), up until their eventual extinction in the mass extinction at the end of the Permian era (approximately 250 million years ago). Although different species had distinctly different morphological features like eyes, facial structures, etc. their general appearance could be described as a cross between a horseshoe crab and a centipede. They were highly variable in size and lifestyle, ranging from under a millimeter to over two feet long, with species of predators, parasites, and filter feeders that ate plankton while swimming.
Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) Although the heath hen was not exactly an Iowa resident, very closely related subspecies have been. This bird was a subspecies of the greater prairie chicken, and lived along the New England coast. The slight bird, weighing only about two pounds per specimen, was hunted extensively by early settlers. It was eaten so commonly that servants sometimes bargained with their employers to avoid eating the bird more than two or three times a week. By the start of the 20th century, the last surviving population numbered only in the hundreds and lived in Martha’s Vineyard. Extensive action was taken to try and protect the birds, including the establishment of a preserve, a hunting ban, and intentional removal of heath hen predators, but an unfortunate fire and the arrival of predatory goshawks stamped out the last of the population. A particularly mournful late sighting occurred in 1929, when a male, who normally wouldn’t venture far from the ground, was seen at the top of a tree calling loudly and desperately for a mate, but none were there to answer. This male was last seen on March 11, 1932.
Photos on this page courtesy of Flickr under Creative Commons licenses.