Top Ten Strange But True Facts about Extinct Giant Animals

By Jeff Campbell, author of Last of the Giants


Is the world a poorer place whenever a giant animal goes extinct? No question. The world also becomes a little less strange.

For instance, consider the lost species featured in Last of the Giants. Here is a collection of incredible, bizarre, wonderful, and occasionally gross facts about extinct animals who once brought the weird.

  1. The elephant bird of Madagascar was not only the world’s largest bird, but it laid the largest egg. Bigger than any known dinosaur egg, it was equivalent to perhaps 200 chicken eggs. Now that’s an omelet.
  1. The Steller’s sea cow was once the second-largest mammal after whales. Its heart was roughly two feet square (about the size of a one-year-old child), and its intestines, stretched out, were nearly 500 feet long—or over one and half football fields.
  1. All river dolphins have bad eyesight because they swim in murky, brown rivers. Besides wickedly good sonar, how did the baiji compensate? As it developed in the womb, the eyes of a baiji fetus traveled higher on its head to improve the view. Eew!
  1. In nineteenth-century America, California grizzlies were once captured and forced to fight Spanish bulls. The grizzlies usually won, but they used brains as much as brawn. Their favorite technique? Grab the panting bull’s tongue and hold on till the bull collapsed.
  1. Here’s some more bull. Aurochs, the original wild bovine, were notorious for the shaggy lock of hair on their gigantic forehead. This forelock became a hunting prize, and folklore once said that if a pregnant woman wore a string of forelocks on a belt, it would aide childbirth. Exactly how did that work?
  1. On islands, giant animals tend to diminish over time. Dwarf elephants in the Mediterannean shrunk to the height of ten-year-olds, and dwarf hippos on Madagascar grew no taller than a dining room table. Aaaw, how cute!
  1. Passenger pigeons weren’t big either, but they flocked by the tens of millions, even the billions. John James Audubon once witnessed a single giant flock passing overhead continuously for three days. Not three hours: three days.
  2. South America once boasted the largest cat that ever lived, the sabertooth Smilodon populator (“he who brings devastation”). Smilodon was nearly 900 pounds and had a pair of 11-inch-long curving fangs. The real mystery? Why it isn’t still around. For 13 million years, sabertooths ruled.
  1. Tasmania’s thylacine was a smart, wolf-like predator with tiger stripes who inspired so much fear some believed it lived on blood like a vampire. Yet

    others successfully tamed thylacines, who became devoted companions and could be walked on a leash. Because who wouldn’t want their own vampire dog?

  1. How tough were Indian Ocean giant tortoises? They could live for a year without food or water. As they say on TV, don’t try this at home. Unfortunately, in the era before canning, that leathery pluck made giant tortoises the perfect portable meal for eighteenth-century sailors, who picked the Mascarene Islands clean.

“But wait!” you say. “Don’t giant tortoises still exist?” Yes, they do. Separate species of giant tortoises still live in the Galapagos and on Aldabra, and they are equally capable of this epic feat of stamina.

Yet they wouldn’t be with us at all without the dedicated efforts of conservationists. The same is true for lions, tigers, rhinos, and more—even as certain species have gone the way of the dodo, others remain endangered, some teetering on the brink of extinction. Saving these animals is important for lots of reasons. Just remember:

It’s also how we keep the world weird.

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