This giant prehistoric rhino was the biggest land mammal to walk the Earth
Courtesy Chen Yuhui
The Linxia Giant Rhino is a new species.
Courtesy Deng Tao
The team was working in the Linxia Basin in Gansu Province, northwestern China.
Courtesy Deng Tao
The second vertebra of a Linxia Giant Rhino.
Brian Gratwicke // Wikimedia Commons
We can all name our favorite endangered species—fan favorites tend to be the big, charismatic mammals like orangutans and tigers that captivate us at zoos. Some of us can even rattle off the more famous species that went extinct in recent centuries, like the passenger pigeon, whose last individual (a bird named Martha) died in captivity in 1914, or the dodo bird, already extinct by 1681. But the modern era has brought with it extinction on a new scale: We’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction ever experienced by our planet, and humans are to blame.
All this extinction talk begs the question: Which species have gone extinct most recently? To find out, Stacker used a December 2020 press release from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, reporting from The Revelator’s John R. Platt, and other scientific sources to compile a list of 15 plants and animals that were declared extinct or extinct in the wild in 2020.
On the list you’ll find frogs and salamanders, birds and trees, and more. Some species on our list are down to the last of their kind, like rare plants now found only in botanical gardens. Others haven’t been spotted for decades, and are at long last being scratched off the list of the living. Why the lag? Conservationists want to be absolutely sure that a species is extinct before calling off the search, since the list also serves as a signal that conservation efforts can cease. It’s an especially tricky call to make, since some hard-to-find species have been known to turn up after years and years of hiding (like the Cebu flowerpecker, a bird spotted in 1992 after an 86-year drought of sightings). Biologists don’t want to declare a species extinct too early, but leaving an extinct species on the endangered list can waste precious conservation resources. In the end, it’s a judgement call made by the experts that know the species best.
Without further ado, here are 15 plants and animals we lost for good in 2020.
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Douwe de Boer // GBIF
- Scientific name: Oophaga speciosa
Central American frogs have had a terrible time for the past few decades, thanks to a fungal disease, chytridiomycosis, that’s been ravaging amphibian populations across the tropics. The splendid poison frog was no exception. Endemic to the forests of Panama, it was last spotted in the wild in 1992.
iNaturalist // GBIF
- Scientific name: Pseudoeurycea exspectata
This salamander was last seen in 1976, although it was once a common sight in its home forest in the Jalapa region of Guatemala (that's not a typo; it's the Jalpa from Jalapa). Since then, habitat destruction from farming, logging, and grazing left it without a home.
[Pictured: A similar species, Pseudoeurycea leprosa.]
Nafis Ameen // Wikimedia Commons
- Scientific name: Gracula religiosa miotera
Researchers reported in 2020 that this tropical bird went extinct in the wild in the past two or three years. This myna was only recently established as a distinct species from its close relatives in Southeast Asia after researchers conducted genomic analyses.
[Pictured: A similar species, Gracula religiosa.]
Lindsay Marshall // Wikimedia Commons
- Scientific name: Carcharhinus obsoletus
The lost shark has only been observed three times in the South China Sea, most recently in 1934. But the specimens weren’t identified as a new species until 2019—long after the shark presumably went extinct. The South China Sea is one of the most heavily fished areas in the world, so it’s unlikely any individuals remain.
Australian National Fish Collection // GBIF
- Scientific name: Sympterichthys unipennis
Perhaps the strangest-looking species on this list, this Australian ocean-dwelling fish is named for the handlike fins it uses to walk along the seafloor. Although the reason for the demise of this species is unknown since it hasn’t been spotted in 200 years, other handfish are susceptible to overfishing, habitat disturbances, and predation by invasive species like the northern Pacific seastar.
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Patrick AVENTURIER // Getty Images
- Scientific name: Barbodes spp.
Fifteen fish species in the genus Barbodes were declared extinct in 2020, all of them endemic to the Philippines' Lake Lanao. One of the oldest lakes in the world, Lake Lanao has been in trouble since the predatory tank goby, Glossogobius giuris, was accidentally introduced in the early 1960s.
[Pictured: Lake Lanao.]
Brian Gratwicke // Wikimedia Commons
- Scientific name: Atelopus chiriquiensis
Another amphibious victim of the chytrid fungus, this frog was actually a toad. Despite intensive search efforts, it hasn’t been observed in its native habitat, the rainforests of Costa Rica and Panama, since 1996.
Isy von Buby // Wikimedia Commons
- Scientific name: Ameles fasciipennis
The only insect on our list, this praying mantis used to live in shrublands in central Italy. It was only recorded once in 1871, before its habitat was thoroughly cultivated.
Mnolf // Wikimedia Commons
- Scientific name: Pipistrellus sturdeei
Another species only recorded once, the Bonin pipistrelle is a Japanese bat observed for the first and last time in 1915. Its former home, the Bonin, or Ogasawara, Islands are a biodiversity hotspot and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
[Pictured: A similar species, Pipistrellus pipistrellus lateral.]
Matt // Wikimedia Commons
Andrew massyn // Wikimedia Commons
- Scientific name: Leucadendron spirale
This South African shrub was last seen in 1933 and finally taken off the endangered species list last year. Though the reasons for its decline aren't certain, much of its habitat has been destroyed, and what's left has been overrun by invasive species.
[Pictured: A similar species, Leucadendron strobilinum.]
Stan Shebs // Wikimedia Commons
- Scientific name: Agave lurida
This Mexican agave, a close relative of the plant that gives us tequila, was last spotted in the wild in 2001. Only a few individual specimens were ever identified, and the plant's tiny range in the Oaxacan shrublands has been heavily grazed, likely leading to its demise.
[Pictured: A similar species, Agave ferox.]
iNaturalist // GBIF
- Scientific name: Alphonsea hortensis
The last specimens of this Sri Lanken tree live in the Peradeniya Royal Botanic Garden. It hasn’t been found in the wild since 1969, when it grew in lowland rainforests.
[Pictured: Similar species, Alphonsea lutea.]
MurielBendel // Wikimedia Commons
- Scientific name: Deppea splendens
This tropical beauty only ever grew in one spot in Mexico, so when its home was plowed under for cultivation, it went extinct in the wild. Luckily a botanist had collected the seeds, so the species lives on in a few botanical gardens, and gardeners can even order cultivars online for their home collections.
B.navez // Wikimedia Commons
Paleontologists working in China have discovered a new species of giant rhino, the largest land mammal ever to have walked the earth.
Giant rhino, Paraceratherium, were mainly found in Asia, according to a press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, published Friday.
The new species, Paraceratherium linxiaense, or Linxia Giant Rhino, was named by a Chinese and US team led by Deng Tao from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) at the academy, which analyzed fossils found in 2015.
“Usually fossils come in pieces, but this one is complete, with a very complete skull and a very complete jaw, which is rare,” Deng told CNN.
“The skull was more than a meter (three feet) long, and it was very rare for a skull of that size to be preserved. We also found the cervical spine,” he said.
The fossils were found in the Linxia basin in Gansu Province, northwestern China, and genetic analysis showed that they belonged to a new species of giant rhino.
The huge animal would have weighed 24 tons and was the same size as six elephants, Deng told CNN. Its shoulders were more than 16 feet off the ground, the head at 23 feet, and its body was 26 feet long, he added.
By way of comparison, adult male giraffes may exceed 18 feet in height, with females reaching around 14 feet.
“This is the largest mammal ever to have lived on land,” Deng said.
It mainly lived in China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Pakistan, with a few in Eastern Europe, he added.
Giant rhino lived in the northern part of the Tibetan plateau around 31 million years ago, before migrating southwest to Kazakhstan and then Pakistan.
The Linxia Giant Rhino is descended from those that lived in Pakistan. They would have had to cross the Tibetan plateau on their way north to Linxia, which means the plateau was lower than it is now, Deng said.
“In addition, animal migration is linked to climate change. So 31 million years ago, when the Mongolian plateau dried up, they moved south,” he added.
“Then the weather got wet and they went back to the north. Therefore, this discovery is of great significance to the study of the whole plateau uplift process, climate and environment,” he said.
The study was published in the journal Communications Biology.
In September 2020, archeologists discovered two perfectly preserved fossils of a new 125 million-year-old dinosaur species in the Lujiatun Beds, the oldest layers of the famous Yixian Formation in northeastern China.
Scientists believe the burrowing dinosaurs, Changmiania liaoningensis, were trapped by a volcanic eruption while resting at the bottom of their burrows.