Brief Eulogies for the Animals We Have Lost

Tributes to the curlews, moths, and toads that are no more

An excerpt from Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader.

Urania Sloanus at Sunrise

When the pear tree blossoms, one after another begins to appear just as the sun rises whence they come is a mystery — and their velvet black wings, banded in metallic blue-green and flecked with red and gold, now radiate ever more brilliantly as the sunbeams glint off them, and, fluttering, by dozens, by hundreds, dizzy with the fragrance of the bloom, the glancing light sparkling from myriad refractions so bright one must almost shield the eyes, they engage in playful combats, dancing in their joyousness, crazy with delight, wheeling and soaring higher and higher above the tree, flying up and up till they are lost to sight.

image of Urania sloanus Image by Pieter Cramer and Caspar Stoll, via Wikimedia Commons The last sighting of Urania sloanus, a moth endemic to Jamaica, was reported in 1884 or 1895.

The Freshwater Mussels of North America

Lolling about in the riffles and shallows of the Tennessee and Cumberland river systems were once so many mussels, their names evocative and flamboyant: Sugarspoons and Acornshells, Winged Spikes and Narrow Catspaws. The free-flowing waters were filtered by Angled Riffleshells, Forkshells, and Leafshells, both Cumberland and plain, and in the gravels with rapid currents hid the Yellow-blossoms, Green-blossoms and Tubercled-blossom Pearly Mussels.

Pollywogging in the Wabash tributaries would turn up abundant Round Combshells, Tennessee Riffleshells and Sampson’s Naiads.

In the Apalachicola River system, both the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers that ran through the loblolly pine forests, you could find the Lined Pocketbook.

The Hazel Pigtoe reclined in the Mobile basin with the True Pigtoe while the Scioto Pigtoe took to the Ohio and the Coosa Elktoe to the Coosa.

The Carolina Elktoe thrived in the Carolinas and the Ochlockonee arcmussel sought the shoals of the Ochlockonee River in Florida and Georgia.

The Tombigbee River has lost its eponymous moccasinshell, the Rio Grande its Monkeyface and False Spike. The empty shells of the Stirrupshell were last collected in Alabama and Mississippi in 1989, their lustrous interiors still brilliant.

The Flight of the Eskimo Curlews

Once the curlews flew across North America in vast flocks a mile long and a hundred yards wide. From far off the calls of a distant flock were said to sound like the jingling of countless sleigh bells. They flew in a wedge shape, the sides of which were constantly swaying back and forth like a cloud of smoke wafted by the lightest wind. At times, the leader would plunge downwards successively, followed by the remainder in a graceful undulation, clumping for a moment into a dense mass and splaying into a thin sheet spread wide, forming and reforming like a great shifting cloud.

image of eskimo curlew Image by Louis Agassize Fuertes The Eskimo curlew (bottom right) was last seen in the mid-1980s.

Strong fliers, theirs was among the greatest migrations of any living thing, wrapping the Americas in a giant elliptical ribbon, from their breeding grounds high in the Canadian Arctic to their wintering spot in the Argentinean pampas and back. Southbound, they stopped in Labrador where the Cree named them Weekemenesew for “likes eating berries.” On a visit there in 1833, John James Audubon observed them arriving, “flock after flock… in search of the feeding grounds, [flying] in close masses, sometimes high, at other times low, but always with remarkable speed, and performing beautiful evolutions in the air.”

After alighting they all ran the same direction, probing the low bushes with their four-inch bills and picking up the berries in their way. They plumped up so much that by the time they flew down the East coast, hunters named them “dough birds.”

In Audubon’s illustration for his landmark tome The Birds of America, a male curlew laments his fallen mate. Such a scene was often repeated whether the birds were flying south or north, and in The Last of the Curlews, Fred Bodsworth quotes a 19th century bulletin: “They were so confiding, so full of sympathy for their fallen companions that in closely packed ranks they fell, easy victims of the carnage.” In Bodsworth’s tale, a male curlew’s solo flight is interrupted when he finally finds a mate. After a brief, exhilarating courtship, she succumbs to a hunter’s shot and the male flies on alone.

No Eskimo curlews have been seen since the mid-1980’s.

Recalling the Golden Toad, Now Extinct

Like a dream conjured by the pools of the cloud forest, longing for a splash of color amid the monotony of rot and decay far below the canopy. The pools themselves fleeting, brought by the mists that creep over the mountains of Monteverde, the spring rains. Neon Day-glo orange males, eyes like round black jewels, thought to be deaf and dumb, sensing by vibration, summoned from underground by the life-giving pools. And for a few weeks the pools would thrive in the mating frenzy when the olive-colored females arrived. This went on once a year for a long time. The pools still awaken but can no longer summon the toads. Some dreams only come true once. On a night hike, flashlight beams shine into the clouds like searchlights in the cosmic dark.

The Laysan Rail

(Porzana Palmeri)

Flightless and fearless, the sandy-brown Laysan rail was swift and curious. It darted over the sand from one patch of grass to another or crept gingerly through the grass, poking its head forward and from side to side inquisitively, and it was often seen stopped in the shade of a plant peering at an object with one foot poised in air before advancing again in fits and starts. In spring, their fuzzy-black chicks scuttled about under the parents venting surprising amounts of noise.

image of eskimo curlew Image by Johannes Gerardus Keulemans The Laysan rail, native to Hawai’i's Laysan Island, is believed to have gone extinct in the 1940s.

In the only video of the Laysan rail, shot in 1923, one scrambles from the bottom to the top of the frame with its head down, taking long, sure strides across the sand between a pair of coral outcroppings; an instant later, another dashes after it and for a moment it looks like a repeat of the same bird, running the same way. But then you see, just as the bird leaves the top of the frame, it flaps its short wings, once, twice, in an effort to catch its mate. If you loop this short clip, the chase goes on forever.

Excerpted with permission from Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals (Pen and Anvil).

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