The Holocene Extinction


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The dodo, a flightless bird native to Mauritius, became extinct during the mid- to late 17th century due to habitat destruction and predation by introduced mammals. Source: By Roelant Savery –, Public Domain,

OpenStax Biology 2e

Holocene mass extinction appears to have begun earlier than previously believed and is largely due to the disruptive activities of modern Homo sapiens. Since the beginning of the Holocene period, there are numerous recent extinctions of individual species that are recorded in human writings. Most of these are coincident with the expansion of the European colonies since the 1500s.

One of the earlier and popularly known examples is the dodo bird. The odd pigeon-like bird lived in the forests of Mauritius (an island in the Indian Ocean) and became extinct around 1662. The dodo was hunted for its meat by sailors and was easy prey because it approached people without fear (the dodo had not evolved with humans). Pigs, rats, and dogs brought to the island by European ships also killed dodo young and eggs.

Steller’s sea cow became extinct in 1768; it was related to the manatee and probably once lived along the northwest coast of North America. Steller’s sea cow was first discovered by Europeans in 1741 and was overhunted for meat and oil. The last sea cow was killed in 1768. That amounts to just 27 years between the sea cow’s first contact with Europeans and extinction of the species!

Since 1900, a variety of species have gone extinct, including the following:

  • In 1914, the last living passenger pigeon died in a zoo in Cincinnati, Ohio. This species had once darkened the skies of North America during its migrations, but it was overhunted and suffered from habitat loss that resulted from the clearing of forests for farmland.
  • The Carolina parakeet, once common in the eastern United States, died out in 1918. It suffered habitat loss and was hunted to prevent it from eating orchard fruit. (The parakeet ate orchard fruit because its native foods were destroyed to make way for farmland.)
  • The Japanese sea lion, which inhabited a broad area around Japan and the coast of Korea, became extinct in the 1950s due to fishermen.
  • The Caribbean monk seal was distributed throughout the Caribbean Sea but was driven to extinction via hunting by 1952.

These are only a few of the recorded extinctions in the past 500 years. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) keeps a list of extinct and endangered species called the Red List. The list is not complete, but it describes 380 extinct species of vertebrates after 1500 AD, 86 of which were driven extinct by overhunting or overfishing.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: