The American incognitum and the History of Extinction Studies


Georges Cuvier (1769 -1832) and the painting of Charles Wilson Peale’s reconstruction of the American incognitum

Extinction is the ultimate fate of all species. More than 95% of all species that ever lived are now extinct. But prior to the 18th century, the idea that species could become extinct was not accepted. However, as the new science of paleontology began bringing its first major discoveries to light, researchers began to wonder if the large vertebrate fossils of strange creatures unearthed by the Enlightenment explorers were indeed the remains of extinct species.

In 1739, French soldiers under the command of Baron Charles le Moyne de Lougueuil recovered a tusk, femur, and three curious molar teeth from Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, a place known in several American Indian narratives. Lougueuil sent these specimens to the Cabinet du Roi (Royal Cabinet of Curiosities) in Paris. In 1762, Louis Jean-Marie Daubenton, a zoologist at the Jardin du Roi concluded that the femur and tusk from the Longueuil’s collection were those of a large elephant, the “Siberian Mammoth,” but the three molars came from a gigantic hippopotamus.

Molar collected at Big Bone Lick in 1739 and described in Paris in 1756. (Georges Cuvier, Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles)

By the early 18 century it was inconceivable for many researchers that a species could be vanished. Naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, wrote in 1749 about the extinction of marine invertebrates, but he adopted Daubenton’s view that the Siberian mammoth and the animal of the Ohio, known as the American incognitum, were both northern forms of the extant elephant rather than a vanished species. British anatomist William Hunter was the first to speculate that these remains might be from an extinct species. In 1799, the discovery of an American incognitum femur from Quaternary deposits in the Hudson River Valley led to excavations organized by Charles Wilson Peale. In 1801, the excavations resulted in the recovery of an almost complete skeleton. Peale reconstructed the skeleton with help from the American anatomist Caspar Wistar, and the displayed the mounted skeleton in public in December of that year.

In 1806 Georges Cuvier resolved the controversy about the  American incognitum demonstrating that both the Siberian mammoth and the “animal de l’Ohio” were elephants, but of different species. He described the Ohio elephant as a mastodon and he reached the conclusion that probably represented an extinct species. Cuvier was also the first to suggested that periodic “revolutions” or catastrophes had befallen the Earth and wiped out a number of species. But, under the influence of Lyell’s uniformitarianism, Cuvier’s ideas were rejected as “poor science”. The modern study of mass extinction did not begin until the middle of the twentieth century. One of the most popular of that time was “Revolutions in the history of life” written by Norman Newell in 1967.



Macleod, N. The geological extinction record: History, data, biases, and testing. Geol. Soc. Am. Spec. Pap. 505, (2014), DOI: 10.1130/2014.2505(01)​

Marshall, Charles R., Five palaeobiological laws needed to understand the evolution of the living biota, Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 0165 (2017), DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0165 .


The Megafauna extinction in South América.


Megatherium americanum Cuvier, 1796. Museo Argentino de La Plata.

Megatherium americanum Cuvier, 1796. Museo Argentino de La Plata.

During the Pleistocene and the early Holocene,  most of the terrestrial megafauna became extinct. It was a deep global-scale event. The extinction was notably more selective for large-bodied animals than any other extinction interval in the last 65 million years. Multiple explanatory hypotheses have been proposed for this event: climatic change, over hunting, habitat alteration, and the introduction of a new disease. Traditionally, the focus of research and debate has been on the Eurasian and North American extinctions. In North America, two mammalian orders (Perissodactyla, Proboscidea) were eliminated completely. At the species level, the extinction was total for mammals larger than 1000 kg and greater than 50% for size classes between 1000 and 32 kg. Early observations confirm that extinctions could be severe even in relatively climatically stable regions where the vegetation changed little. In South America the event was  more severe, with the loss of 50 megafaunal genera. Three orders of mammals disappeared (Notoungulata, Proboscidea, Litopterna), as did all megafaunal xenarthrans and at the species level, the extinction was total for mammals larger than 320 kg (Koch and Barnosky, 2006).

“Descuartizando un gliptodonte. Escenas de la vida del hombre primitivo” (Quartering a glyptodont. Scenes from the life of primitive man). Painting by Luis de Servi. Museo de la Plata).

“Descuartizando un gliptodonte. Escenas de
la vida del hombre primitivo” (Quartering a
glyptodont. Scenes from the life of primitive man). Painting by Luis de Servi, Museo de la Plata.

Before the Great American Biotic Interchange, about 3 million years ago, the largest mammals in South America were mainly endemic notoungulates, litopterns and xenarthrans. But, during the interchange, many other megamammals and large mammals arrived to South America. The late Pleistocene in this region is first characterized by a rapid cooling. During the Pleistocene-Holocene transition pollen sequences suggest a change to sub-humid climatic conditions. In addition to rapid climate change, the extinctions are seen as the result of habitat loss, reduced carrying capacity for herbivores, resource fragmentation or disturbances in the co-evolutionary equilibrium between plants, herbivores, and carnivores. The death event of the gomphothere population in Águas de Araxá (Brazil)  about 55,000 years ago, is probably an example of individuals that were suffering with the climate changes during the Late Pleistocene.

Paleontological and archaeological data indicate that extinctions seem more common after the human arrival and during the rapid climate change between 11.200 and 13.500 years. This pattern suggests that a synergy of human impacts and rapid climate change—analogous to what is happening today — may enhance extinction probability (Prado et al., 2015).



J.L. Prado et al. (2015). “Megafauna extinction in South America: A new chronology for the Argentine Pampas.” Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 425: 41–49

Alroy, John. (2001). “A Multispecies Overkill Simulation of the End-Pleistocene Megafaunal Mass Extinction.” Science 292:1893-1896

Koch PL, Barnosky AD (2006) Late Quaternary extinctions: State of the debate. Annu Rev Ecol Evol Syst 37:215–250.

Prescott GW, Williams DR, Balmford A, Green RE, Manica A. (2012) Quantitative global analysis of the role of climate and people in explaining late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109,45274531

Barnosky AD, Lindsey EL.(2010) Timing of Quaternary megafaunal extinction in South America in relation to human arrival and climate change


The Anthropocene defaunation process.


Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

In 2000,  Paul Crutzen proposed use the term Anthropocene to designate the last two hundred years of human history and to mark the end of the current Holocene geological epoch. Although there is no agreement on when the Anthropocene started, it has been defined, primarily, by significant and measurable increases in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from ice cores and other geologic features including synthetic organic compounds, radionuclides and ocean acidification.

Another marker for the Anthropocene is the current biodiversity crisis. The term defaunation was created to designate the declining of top predators and herbivores triggered by human activity, that results in a lack of agents that control the components of the ecosystems vegetation.

Global population declines in mammals and birds represented in numbers of individuals per 10,000 km2 for mammals and birds (From Dirzo et al., 2014)

Global population declines in mammals and birds (From Dirzo et al., 2014).

Since the industrial revolution, the wave of animal and plant extinctions that began with the late Quaternary has accelerated. Calculations suggest that the current rates of extinction are 100–1000 times above normal, or background levels. We are in the midst of  the so called “Sixth Mass Extinction”.

Although anthropogenic climate change is playing a growing role, the primary drivers of modern extinctions seem to be habitat loss, human predation, and introduced species (Briggs, 2011). The same drivers that contributed to ancient megafaunal and island extinctions.

SConsequences of defaunation (From Dirzo et al., 2014)

The consequences of defaunation (From Dirzo et al., 2014)


One of the most famous and well-documented extinctions come from Madagascar. Pygmy hippos, giant tortoises, and large lemurs went extinct due to human hunting or habitat disturbance.  A very interesting study by Burney et al. (2003) tracked the decline of coprophilous Sporormiella fungus spores in sediments due to reduced megafaunal densities after the human arrival on the island. Another well documented case is the Moa extinction in New Zealand. Recent radiocarbon dating and population modeling suggests that their disappearance occurred within 100 years of first human arrival. A large number of  land birds across Oceania suffered a similar fate beginning about 3500 years ago.

Some biologist predict that the sixth extinction  may result in a 50% loss of the plants and animals on our planet by AD 2100, which would cause not only the collapse of ecosystems but also the loss of food economies, and medicinal resources.


Richard N. Holdaway, Morten E. Allentoft, Christopher Jacomb, Charlotte L. Oskam, Nancy R. Beavan, Michael Bunce. An extremely low-density human population exterminated New Zealand moa. Nature Communications, 2014; 5: 5436 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms6436

Rodolfo Dirzo et al., Defaunation in the Anthropocene, Science 345, 401 (2014); DOI: 10.1126/science.1251817

Braje, T.J., Erlandson, J.M., Human acceleration of animal and plant extinctions: A Late Pleistocene, Holocene, and Anthropocene continuum. Anthropocene (2013),