Extinct Animals That Once Roamed The Polar Plains
Animals like the majestic polar bear, the cute penguin and the awesome whale may inspire people to embark on polar cruises these days, but in the past, it was a different story. Historically, these parts of the world were home to creatures that no longer exist today but that would be just as big a draw (if not more) were they still alive.
Imagine spotting a herd of woolly mammoths as your ship came into port or happening upon a sabretooth cat as it hunts down its prey. These are the animals that used to roam these polar plains.
The woolly mammoth is perhaps the most iconic animal to have disappeared from these regions and one that would certainly be a fascinating sight were they still around today. Mammoths could be found right across Europe, North America and Northern Asia during the Pleistocene Epoch (2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago) and the beginning of the Holocene. There were many different mammoth species but woolly mammoths were the smallest and most adapted to the cold conditions.
Usually mistaken as larger, they were actually no taller than the male African elephants alive today. The last woolly mammoths were thought to have died only around 4,000 years ago, meaning their existence coincided with humans. Opinion is divided as to whether it was excessive hunting or climate change that caused them to die out but we have learnt a great deal about their lives from frozen remains found in places like Canada, Alaska and Siberia.
Modern-day rhinos are directly descended from their woolly cousins who shared the plains of Europe and North America with woolly mammoths. Although the two creatures were alive during the same period in history, a recent discovery of a 3.6 million-year-old woolly rhino tooth has indicated they were around long before mammoths. It is thought that they migrated from the regions around modern-day Tibet to Northern Europe during the ice age and that large numbers of them would have called the cold deserts of southern England home.
Adult woolly rhinos could grow to around 3.8 metres in length, making them slightly larger than a white rhino (the largest species alive today). Again, it is proposed that a mixture of hunting and habitat changes caused the animal’s extinction. Scientists argue that it could not have been solely the latter as, although they enjoyed the colder climates, woolly rhinos were capable of living in warmer areas too.
The great auk is the most recent animal on the list to become extinct, only dying out around 1850. Similar looking to a penguin, but totally unrelated, these flightless birds were the first to be given this name that we now associate with the cute and cuddly creatures found in Antarctica. However, the great auk had a much wider range and lived in the opposite polar region to where we find penguins today. They were very much at home on the rocky coasts of the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Iceland and the UK.
Once again, it is humans that caused the extinction of a creature that held cultural significance throughout its life. They were hunted for their meat by Neanderthals and other early humans and then, by the 8th century, they began to be hunted for their down too. Even the act of giving them official protection, in 1553, didn’t stop their numbers from dwindling and the last kick in the teeth was that this meant their illusive eggs were now a prized capture for collectors.
Although the world looked like a vastly different place at the time, there is evidence that dinosaurs lived in the Polar Regions. Much of this comes from findings discovered in Dinosaur Cove, on the south coast of Victoria, Australia. You may think that Australia is definitely not a polar country, but just over 100 million years ago it was attached to Antarctica and known as East Gondwana. During the Cretaceous period, the temperatures in this part of the world were a lot warmer than they are today, but are still estimated to have been between 0 and 8 degrees Celsius.
Some of the dinosaurs proposed to have lived in this climate include Koolasuchus, Cryolophosaurus various Hypsilophodonts. Analysis of some of the skulls recovered has shown large eyes and optic nerve cavities which could point to the fact that these dinosaurs had adapted excellent vision to be able to survive the long period of polar night.
As you can see, the same issues that face the endangered wildlife today were what caused many creatures from the past to become extinct. If we don’t act soon, animals such as polar bears could sadly join the list over the next century.