10 Recently Extinct Insects and Invertebrates

A male funnel web spider, Hexathelidae.
David McClenaghan, CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-3.0

It may seem odd to memorialize extinct insects (and other invertebrates) when literally thousands of species remain to be discovered—after all, ants, worms, and beetles are very small, and the Amazon rainforest is very, very big. Nevertheless, it's worth thinking about the snails, locusts, moths, and butterflies (along with all the other tiny creatures) that have gone extinct under the watch of human civilization.

Caribbean Monk Seal Nasal Mite

nasal mite

 Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Insects are extremely specialized, sometimes much too specialized for their own good. Take the Caribbean monk seal nasal mite (Halarachne americana), for example. The species went extinct when its host, the Caribbean monk seal, disappeared off the face of the earth less than 100 years ago. The only remaining specimens of this mite were recovered decades ago from the nasal passages of a single captive seal. While it may yet be possible to bring back the Caribbean monk seal (via a controversial program known as de-extinction), it's likely that the Caribbean monk seal nasal mite is gone for good.

Cascade Funnel-Web Spider

FUNNEL WEAVER SPIDER IN WEB, BASE OF ST CATALINA MOUNTAINS. TUCSON, ARIZONA. USA
David Q. Cavagnaro / Getty Images

Not many people like spiders, especially poisonous ones—which may be why the extinction of the Cascade funnel-web spider hasn't occasioned any telethons lately. Funnel-web spiders are common all over Australia, and have killed at least two dozen people over the last century. The Cascade spider was native to Tasmania, a much smaller island off the Australian coast, and fell victim to urbanization (after all, homeowners won't tolerate lethal spiders setting up camp in their backyards). The Cascade funnel-web spider (Hadronyche pulvinator) was first described in 1926, was only intermittently sighted since, and was officially declared extinct in 1995.

Levuana Moth

Moths
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Coconuts are a major cash crop on the island of Fiji—and if you happen to be an insect that feeds on coconuts, you can expect to face extinction sooner rather than later. The levuana moth (Levuana iridiscens) was the target of an intense eradication campaign in the early 20th century, which succeeded all too well. Most insect pests would simply lay low or decamp to another location, but the restriction of the levuana moth to a small island habitat spelled its doom. This moth can no longer be found on Fiji, though some naturalists hope it still survives on other Pacific islands further west.

Lake Pedder Earthworm

Earthworm
Image by Ed Reschke/Photolibrary/Getty Images

A tiny worm, from a tiny lake, from a tiny country near the bottom of the world...the Lake Pedder earthworm (Hypolimnus pedderensis) is surprisingly well-documented, considering that scientists have described only a single, injured specimen, discovered in Tasmania in 1971. (The worm was assigned its own species because of its semi-aquatic environment and lack of dorsal pores, among other features.) Sadly, no sooner did we get to know the Lake Pedder earthworm than we were forced to say goodbye, as Lake Pedder was deliberately flooded in 1972 during the building of a hydroelectric facility.

Madeiran Large White

In a way, the Madeiran large white is to lepidopterists (butterfly enthusiasts) what Moby Dick was to Captain Ahab—a large, nearly mythical creature that inspires a kind of mania in its admirers. This two-inch butterfly, which has distinctive black markings on its white wings, was last collected on the island of Madeira (off the coast of Portugal) in the late 1970s and has not been seen since. Although the possibility exists that the large white is phenomenally rare, rather than extinct, a more likely expectation is that the species (Pieris brassicae wollastoni) succumbed to a viral infection and no longer exists.

Pigtoe and the Pearly Mussel

If you happen to have the genus name Pleurobema or Epioblasma, you may want to consider taking out a life insurance policy. The former encompasses dozens of species of the freshwater mussels known as pigtoes, which have been going extinct all over the American southeast thanks to the destruction of their natural habitat; the latter embraces numerous varieties of pearly mussels, which inhabit roughly the same endangered territory. Still, you'll be glad to know that mussels as a whole aren't going extinct anytime soon; Pleurobema and Epioblasma are just two genera of the extensive Unionidae family, which includes nearly 300 different species.

Polynesian Tree Snail

The Oahu tree snail
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Belonging to the genera Partula or Samoana is like having a big red target affixed to your shell. These designations comprise what most people know simply as Polynesian tree snails—small, banded, inoffensive gastropods that have been going extinct faster than naturalists can track them. The Partula snails of Tahiti disappeared in a way that no scientists could have predicted: to prevent the island from being ravaged by an invasive species of African snail, scientists imported carnivorous Florida rosy wolfsnails, which ate their tastier Partula comrades instead.

Rocky Mountain Locust

Locust

 

Yod Pimsen/500px/Getty Images

In many ways, the Rocky Mountain locust was the insect equivalent of the passenger pigeon. During the late 19th century, both these species traversed North America in enormous numbers (billions of passenger pigeons, literally trillions of locusts), devastating crops as they landed on the way to their destinations. While the passenger pigeon was hunted to extinction, the Rocky Mountain locust succumbed to agricultural development, as this insect's breeding grounds were claimed by midwestern farmers. The last credible sighting occurred in 1902, and since then efforts to revive the species (by cross-breeding closely related grasshoppers) have met with failure.

Sloane's Urania

What the Madeiran large white is to butterfly hunters, so Sloane's urania is to collectors who specialize in moths. The odds of catching a live specimen are virtually infinitesimal since the last sighting of Urania sloanus occurred over 100 years ago. This unusually colorful Jamaican moth had iridescent red, blue, and green markings on its black wings, and it flew during the day rather than at night, a common habit of tropical moths. Sloane's urania was probably doomed by the conversion of Jamaica's rain forests to farmland, which both diminished its territory and destroyed the plants eaten by the moth's larvae.

Xerces Blue

The Xerces blue had the dubious honor of going extinct under the noses of literally millions of people; this butterfly lived in close proximity to the burgeoning city of San Francisco during the late 19th century, and the last known individual was glimpsed in the early 1940s in the Golden Gate Recreational Area. It's not that San Franciscans hunted the Xerces blue en masse with butterfly nets; rather, naturalists believe the butterfly fell victim to invasive species of ants unwittingly carried west in covered wagons. While the Xerces blue appears to be gone for good, efforts are underway to introduce two closely related species, the Palos Verdes blue and the silvery blue, to the San Francisco Bay area.