Each year, the Oscars present an In Memoriam – a roundup of the famous faces the world lost in the past 12 months. And as the year that’s seen warnings of apocalyptic worldwide extinctions with effects lasting millions of years into the future finally draws to its close, it’s only fitting that we do the same.
So here’s IFLScience’s In Memoriam: a tribute to all the species we lost in 2018.
Fittingly, the first wildlife obituary belongs to a movie star: the Spix’s Macaw. The star of Rio’s brilliant blue plumage has now been seen in the wild for the last time – around 100 of the birds still exist, and all are in captivity.
Flying with the Macaws into extinction were the less well-known Alagoas foliage-gleaner, cryptic treehunter, and poo-uli. A recent study by biologists at BirdLife International put the probability of these species’ survival at just 0.1 – low enough to nudge them from “critically endangered” to “extinct” on the IUCN Red List.
“Human activities are the ultimate drivers of virtually all recent extinctions,” Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist at BirdLife International, told IFLScience at the time.
"It is certainly the case that the rate of extinctions on continents is higher than ever before. And that the rate will continue to increase without concerted conservation efforts."
2018 was the year the eastern cougar was officially declared extinct – likely 80 years after the last one was killed in Maine. Sudan, the last male northern white rhino left in the world, died, reducing the global population of the species to just two females. And for many other animals, like the 12 tiny vaquita porpoises left in existence, it’s just a matter of time.
“[Total extinction] could come next year. It could be this year. At some point it becomes a dice roll.”
Not only are we wiping out some of the world’s newest species – like the Tapanuli orangutan, discovered in 2017 and already facing extinction thanks to human industry – but we’re killing off some of the oldest as well. Chinese giant salamanders, the “living fossils” whose ancestors roamed the Earth alongside stegosaurus and diplodocus, are now on the brink of extinction – and, despite surviving for more than 250 million years, so are many of the world’s most unique sharks and rays.
Giraffes were declared critically endangered for the first time in 2018, and almost all lemurs are doomed. Insects are particularly in danger. We’ve lost 97 percent of western monarch butterflies in the US, and South American creepy-crawlies are declining rapidly as well.
“Insects power the world in a real way — they make the world work," said McKeon. "We're dropping those numbers radically… That should scare people.”
But there is cause for hope. In amongst all the doom and gloom, 2018 also saw mountain gorillas saved from their critically endangered status and wild black rhinos returned to Chad for the first time in 50 years. The adorable San Quintin kangaroo rat was found to be alive and well after three decades of assumed extinction, and the rare Lake Pátzcuaro salamander was saved from extinction thanks to an order of Mexican nuns.
Most promisingly of all, there’s even hope for the two lonely northern white rhinos. No, we’re not talking about a rhinoceros-based immaculate conception here – but research this year found that northern and southern white rhinos are more closely related than previously thought, making hybrids born via IVF a real possibility.
“When it comes to … endangered species, we don’t have the luxury of trial and error,” Thomas Hildebrandt, the scientist behind the groundbreaking conservation technique, warned at the time.
“Losing species means losing the books of evolution before we have the chance to read them.”