Mass extinction as the driving force behind evolution
In the history of life there have been five dramatic events that each caused the extinction of more than 70 % of all then living animal and plant species. Life had to prevail against climatic changes, cosmic disasters, and continental drift.New survival strategies as a response to the changing living conditions were the driving force behind evolution. THE SIXTH WAVE OF MASS EXTINCTION - THE FINAL MASS EXTINCTION? Today, scientists are observing the sixth great wave of mass extinction in the history of the Earth. Three animal or plant species become extinct every hour. For the first time, humans are responsible for the destruction of ecosystems, climate change, and the mass extinction of species. Is Homo sapiens bringing life to a critical point and causing the motor driving evolution to stutter? One thing is certain: it is only a question of time before humans themselves become the victims of their unbelievable over-exploitation of life and resources.
Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae)
Not discovered until 1938, the coelacanth is considered a “living fossil”. The small population of coelacanths lives in the deep sea near the Comoros and is at risk of extinction.
Arapaima (Arapaima gigas)
The arapaima lives in the Amazon and is one of the world’s largest freshwater fish. It is endangered due to overfishing.
Ocean sunfish (Mola mola)
The ocean sunfish lives mainly in warm seas and is considered the heaviest bony fish in the world. It can weigh up to 2.3 tons. Today they are an endangered species.
Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias)
The great white shark stands at the top of the food chain in the world’s subtropical and temperate oceans. It has unfairly gained a reputation as a “man-eater” and has been hunted for decades.
Beluga sturgeon (Huso huso)
Beluga sturgeons live in the Black Sea and can grow up to 8 m in length. As recently as the 19th century they would swim upstream to reproduce. The construction of hydroelectric power plants along the Danube prevented them from migrating upstream.
Galapagos giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra)
These tortoises are only found on the Galapagos archipelago. Of the 15 sub-species of giant tortoise native to the Galapagos Islands, five have become extinct in recent history.
Meadow viper (Vipera ursinii rakosiensis)
The meadow viper was commonly found in eastern Austria until the early 20th century, with the last recorded sighting in 1973. Today it can be found only in parts of Hungary and Romania.
Ganges gharial (Gavialis gangeticus)
The Ganges gharial is the only surviving representative of the Gavialidae family and is at risk of becoming extinct. Consequently, there are hardly any quiet sandbanks left on these mighty lowland rivers where the Ganges gharial can hunt for fish.
Sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla)
With a wingspan of up to 2.4 m, the sea eagle is one of the most impressive birds of prey in Europe. A series of protection measures have led to an increase in its numbers in recent years.
White-faced owl (Sceloglaux albifacies)
This medium-sized owl species was found only in New Zealand and died out early in the 20th century. Hunting, changes in habitat, and the introduction of non-native predatory mammals to New Zealand probably have all contributed directly to its extinction.
Kakapo (Strigops habroptila)
Kakapos are only found in New Zealand. This flightless, nocturnal parrot species with a highly complex mating ritual is threatened by extinction. Thanks to concerted efforts to protect the species there are now more than 120 kakapos.
Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas)
These peaceful giants became extinct in 1768, just 27 years after Europeans had first discovered them during the Bering Expedition to the Commander Islands off the coast of Kamchatka. They were hunted to extinction because their meat could be eaten.
Snow leopard (Panthera uncia)
Today there are fewer than 7000 snow leopards living in the mountainous regions of Central Asia. Snow leopards require huge territories.
Przewalski’s horse (Equus caballus przewalskii)
The Przewalski’s horse died out in the wild in the late 1960s, despite the fact that large populations had existed in the Asian steppe until the end of the 18th century.
Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus)
The Javan rhinoceros is the rarest of the five rhinoceros species. There are only around 50 animals still living in the wild.
Wisent (Bison bonasus)
The wisent, also known as the European bison, became extinct in the wild in 1927. Only 12 animals remained alive in captivity. They were used to start a breeding program which has (so far) succeeded in saving the species.
Dodo (Raphus cucullatus)
Dodos lived exclusively on the islands of Mauritius and Reunion. During the 17th century thousands of these flightless birds, which had no natural enemies on Mauritius, fell prey to European seafarers mainly because they were unafraid and trusting.
Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus)
Long before European settlers arrived, it had survived only in Tasmania. There, thylacines were wrongly regarded as a threat to flocks of sheep and were aggressively hunted.
Passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius)
With an estimated 3 – 5 billion of their kind, passenger pigeons were once the most common species of bird in the world. During the 19th century millions of passenger pigeons were shot because they were considered crop pests.
Trilobite (Huntoniatonia lingulifer)
Devonian, 415 million years old, Clarita, Oklahoma, USA.
Thousands of trilobite genera have been described so far from all Paleozoic seas.
Trilobite (Walliserops trifurcatus)
Devonian, 385 million years old, Jebel Oufatene, Morocco.
Trilobites are among the most eye-catching animals of the Paleozoic Era. They were complex arthropods with a broad head-shield, several thoracal segments, and a tail-shield.
Mesosaur (Mesosaurus tenuidens)
Permian, 270 million years old, São Mateus do Sul, Brazil.
The small Mesosaurs that became extinct 280 million years ago dwelled in an inland-sea that had formed between South America and Africa.
Ichthyosaur (Female Stenopterygius quadriscissus with foetuses)
Jurassic, 180 million years old, Holzmaden, Germany.
The dolphin-like ichthyosaurs were marine reptiles that evolved 245 million years ago and became extinct before the dinosaurs, about 90 million years ago.
Giant ammonite (Parapuzosia seppenradensis)
Cretaceous, 85 million years old, Gosau, Austria.
This was the largest known ammonite and could grow up to three meters in diameter. Ammonites, like the dinosaurs, became extinct 66 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period.
Natural History Museum Vienna
Responsible for the project: Reinhard Golebiowski, Mathias Harzhauser, Christian Köberl, Ernst Mikschi, Iris Ott, Brigitta Schmid, Gabriel Stöckle