Archive for category Extinct Species

Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle: The Death of a Legend

The annals and magazine of natural history : zoology, botany, anSince January 19th, when rumors about the death of the Hoàn Kiếm Turtle first surfaced, the Turtle Survival Alliance has now confirmed that indeed the lone Swinhoe’s (or Yangtze) soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) that resided in Hoàn Kiếm Lake in central Hanoi, Vietnam, was found floating dead in the lake Tuesday. The passing of this individual makes the situation even more dire for the remaining three turtles, which together represent the last and only known individuals in existence of this, the world’s rarest freshwater turtle.

The Swinhoe’s softshell turtle had long been famous for it role in Vietnamese legend as the fabled Sword Lake Turtle that inhabited Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Of the handful of Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to scientists to exist in the wild or captivity in recent years, five had died since the 1990s, leaving only four remaining: one in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, one in the wild in Đồng Mỏ Lake west of Hanoi, and two in captivity, the latter now both part of the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program.

Since 2008, when the Changsha Zoo’s female, “China Girl,” was relocated to Suzhou, scientists at Suzhou Zoo have undertaken a captive breeding program with their older male turtle. But despite repeated bouts of courtship displays and mating between the pair in the years since, the resulting eggs have failed to hatch.

With the passing of this lonely, legendary turtle, it is perhaps fitting to remember it today more than ever through the legend that made it a cornerstone of Vietnamese mythology, a fairytale hero to Vietnamese schoolchildren, and an omen of good luck to all who were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the turtle surfacing in Hoàn Kiếm Lake over the years.

The following retelling is from the 2012 article I prepared on the history and natural history of this species in the journal Bibliotheca Herpetologica, and is excerpted here, below (a citation and link to the full article are provided below).

The Legend of the Sword Lake Turtle

“In the six-hundred years since the Dragon King first guided the farmer king to victory, the legend of the Sword Lake Turtle has evolved in the telling. The heart of this legend roughly holds true to the historical record. Between 1418 and 1426, after enduring years of violent occupation under an invading force of the Chinese Ming, the farmer Lê Lợi raised an army of 500 volunteer soldiers – the Lam Son army – to free their country. Although Lê Lợi’s guerilla tactics demoralized and chipped away at the invader’s forces, the Ming occupation persisted (Trang 2006). It is here that the lines between legend and history blur.

As retold by Minh Trang in “Sự Tích Hồ Gươm (The Legend of Sword Lake)” (Trang 2006; see also Asian Turtle Conservation Network 2008), legend has it the Dragon King – witnessing from his underwater palace the Lam Son army’s struggle – sent forth the Golden Turtle (referred to as the “Golden Tortoise” in Trang 2006) to deliver a magical sword blade to Lê Lợi. Whether by design or by accident (here the legend is unclear on all counts), this blade was delivered, not to Lê Lợi, but to a fisherman, Lê Thận. Lê Thận cast his net three times, each time entangling it in the sword blade. It wasn’t until the third cast that Lê Thận, beguiled by the reappearing blade, tucked it in his belt and returned home. Soon thereafter, Lê Thận joined Lê Lợi’s resistance army.

One night, after stopping by Lê Thận’s quarters to visit, Lê Lợi noticed the blade on the wall, which began to glow in his presence. Inspecting the blade, Lê Lợi saw the radiance emanated from two words etched on the blade: “Thuận Thiên” (“Heaven Approves” or “The Will of Heaven”). Several days later, during a retreat of Lê Lợi’s guerilla army before an anticipated Ming attack, the farmer king again saw a strange glow – this time from the canopy of an ancient banyan tree. Upon closer inspection, Lê Lợi saw that it was a sword hilt decorated in gems and etched with the same divine words: “Thuận Thiên.”

When Lê Lợi and Lê Thận next crossed paths, Lê Lợi asked to see the blade; the blade and hilt were a perfect fit. Seeing this as a sign from heaven, Lê Thận knelt before Lê Lợi, bestowed him the sword, and swore his allegiance to the farmer king that he might save their people and their homeland (Trang 2006).

As word of Lê Lợi’s magical sword spread, his Lam Son army grew (Trang 2006, Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008). Backed by a growing resistance some 350,000 soldiers strong, reinforced with horses and elephants, and – by legend’s score – armed with the magical sword that made Lê Lợi grow tall and gave him the strength of many men (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008), Lê Lợi destroyed the Ming forces and led his people to victory. After years of oppression, in 1427 the Chinese recognized the Vietnamese people’s independence. One year later, Lê Lợi was declared king under the title Lê Thái Tổ, founder of the Lê Dynasty (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008).

Not long after Lê Lợi became king, he was touring Lục Thuy (“Green Water”) Lake when the Golden Turtle emerged from the waters to retrieve the divine sword. By some accounts, the Golden Turtle asked for the sword’s return and Lê Lợi respectfully complied (Trang 2006); by others the messenger instead plucked it from Lê Lợi’s belt, inciting the king to retrieve it (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008). In the end, however, Lê Lợi acknowledged the sword’s return to the Dragon King and in tribute, renamed the waters Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, “The Lake of the Returned Sword” (Trang 2006, Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008)” (Bettelheim 2012).

Full Citation: Bettelheim, Matthew P. 2012. Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei): The Legendary Sword Lake Turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake. Bibliotheca Herpetologica 10(1): p 4-20.


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Book Review: Aviary Wonders Inc.

Aviary9780547978994_lresAviary Wonders Inc., Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual, by Kate Samworth, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (, 2014, 32 pages, $17.99

In Kate Samworth’s debut children’s book, the world has stumbled into a dark future fantasy where deforestation has brought birds to the edge of extinction, and Aviary Wonders Inc. visionary Alfred Wallis (surely no relation to Alfred Russel Wallace) has mass-manufactured a solution – a build-a-bird catalogue (and instruction manual). In the spirit of the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogs from the days of old, Aviary Wonders Inc. encourages nostalgic nature lovers of the future to create their own birds from hand-crafted parts lovingly shaped and detailed by world-class artisans around the globe. From feathers fletched in 100% Indian silk to hand-tooled Italian leather legs, this spring catalogue is a veritable bird buffet of ready-to-assemble parts.

Told tongue in cheek through dark, exotic copy reminiscent of the J. Peterman Company, Samworth marshals the absurd to drive home how irreplaceable birds are. But in doing so, the dark comedy hits a little too close to home. Rightfully so, the screw-on legs, the gaudy-tacky feathers, the Celtic scrollwork-tooled beaks, and the buckle-and-strap crest and beak harnesses are all too alien to make peace with. Children who aren’t bedazzled by the playful presentation and silly premise may instead find it simply alienating (naked birds without beaks and feet). Hopefully, parents will take advantage of any discomfort and channel it into conversations about extinction and conservation, the hidden message in this post-cataclysmic catalogue.

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A Page From LIFE – Linsenmaier’s Antioch Dunes Revealed

In 1955, Time LIFE magazine ran the feature article, “The World of the Insects,” an “intimate look at this world of buzzing, flying creatures which abound in summer.” Therein was a 2-part, 6-page-fold-out spread illustrated by famed artist Dr. Walter Linsenmaier titled “A Communal Life on the Dunes.” In detailed cut-aways, the vivid panels feature the flora and fauna of the Antioch Dunes.

(Reproduced with the Permission of Maja Linsenmaier)

(Reproduced with the Permission of Maja Linsenmaier)

Today, the 55-acre Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge is the only federal wildlife refuge in the United States established for the protection of two endangered plants and an insect:

Antioch Dunes evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides howellii)
Contra Costa wallflower (Erysimum capitatum angustatum)
Lange’s metalmark butterfly (Apodemia mormo langei)

It would be 21 years before the Antioch Dunes’ own Lange’s metalmark butterfly was placed on the Federal Endangered Species List and the dunes designated as Critical Habitat for this dwindling butterfly.

In Linsenmaier’s 1955 illustration, the Lange’s metalmark escaped mention. Instead, the article notes:

“On the Antioch dunes of California, near the junction of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers, lives one of the most richly varied insect communities. The sand, clay and soil are ideal for the burrows of wasps and bees. Grasses and lotus and lupine plants flourishing on the dunes provide plentiful food. Because the dunes lie near the University of California and the California Academy of Sciences, the life upon them has been studied for decades by entomologists. Artist Walter Linsenmaier’s painting of the integrated society found there is based on their discoveries.”

Linsenmaier the artist was no mere observer. Dr. Walter Linsenmaier (August 18, 1917 – October 31, 2000) was a renowned Swiss painter and entomologist who made a name for himself in part because of his specialized work preparing illustrations of birds and insects – especially wasps – for books and magazines. Linsenmaier was also a respected entomologist, known to have described several hundred new species and subspecies of insects, and to have collected an estimated 250,000 insects from around the world.

Given Linsenmaier’s interest in insects, the Antioch Dunes proved the perfect subject. Beginning in 1929, the remarkable insect fauna attracted entomologists from the California Academy of Sciences and the University of California. Between then and 1982, entomologists continued to revisit the dunes every year (excepting 1931, 1943, 1970, and 1980) making it a veritable hot spot for Bay Area entomologists. During that time, 376 insects were recorded at the dunes, of which only 219 were recollected during survey efforts in the early 80′s, suggesting some 157 insect species have since disappeared. All told, their collecting efforts led to the discovery of 27 new taxa of insects. Several of these species were recorded then for the first and last time, remembered today only by the preserved specimens collected during these early forays. And eight insects are—or were—endemic to the Antioch Dunes and nowhere else on earth. During the most recent survey effort, performed between 1995 and 1997, a total of 249 insect taxa were recorded. However, these taxa represented only 35% of the insect species recorded previously during the last extensive survey effort between 1976 and 1982.

Linsenmaier’s landscapes represent a snapshot of the dunes in their decline, leaving it to one’s imagination how the sandy hills might once have been alive with the hustle and buzz of insects in their hey-day.

Full Citation: 1955. The World of the Insects. TimeLIFE Magazine: 39(6): 43-55. August 8.

[Dr. Walter Linsenmaier’s illustrations featured here were reproduced with the kind permission of Maja Linsenmaier (]

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Book Review: Lost Animals

LostAnimalsk10215Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, by Errol Fuller, Princeton University Press (, 2014, 240 pages, $29.95

With countless books about species extinction under his belt – titles like Extinct BirdsDodo: From Extinction to Icon, and The Great Auk: The Extinction of the Original Penguin – artist and writer Errol Fuller has long had his finger on the pulse of vanishing species. With Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, Fuller takes a new look at extinction through the lens of the camera, exploring what in many cases has become the only visual proof of life known for these species.

Rather than recording the natural history of these lost species, Fuller instead examines the history of these species as recorded on film, be it the oft-paraded photograph of Martha, the Cincinnati Zoo’s last passenger pigeon, or the tragicomical series of photographs depicting the juvenile ivory-billed woodpecker known as ‘Sonny Boy’ perching like a pet atop a gentleman’s head and shoulders. Where a physical type specimen or stuffed museum mount captures the body of these creatures, these photographs capture their souls – the animus of animals in life, animated in spite of captivity or isolation, naive to the likelihood they might be the last of their kind.

Lost Animals could stand alone as a coffee table book, a poignant photographic memento ‘mori’ of humankind’s foibles and hubris in our capacity as sometimes-stewards of the land. But in reaching beyond the photographs to tell their stories, Fuller gets lost himself in a muddle of awkward sentence constructions, fuzzy logic, and passive voice. Looking at sentences mired in passive voice such as  “…but most zoologists believe that by the time of the coming of Europeans they were…” (p 174) or “Hopes are expressed that birds may still survive…” (p 151), or clunky prose such as “Two years passed, and 21 birds of the species flew into a lighthouse,” the final result comes across unpolished.

Understandably, there is no shortage of uncertainty surrounding these species and the photographic record. But Fuller vacillates instead of authoritatively wrestling fact from fiction, seemingly unwilling to make a clear statement to any effect. Instead of asserting “The photographer is unknown,” he writes: “It has not proved possible to find details of when or how it was taken” (p 149). And several times Fuller makes baseless claims, editorializing unnecessarily about the lastness of a photograph’s subject. For example, he writes that the Kaua ‘i ‘O’o (Moho braccatus) featured in a 1975 photograph “may even have survived for long enough to become the very last” (p 147), a nebulous claim given how little was known about the species at that time, not to mention the fact that a pair of Kaua ‘i ‘O’o was sighted six years later and the last bird was seen in 1985. Or the waffling “…later in the year only a single individual seemed to be present” followed immediately by the groundless concession, “Either this bird, or perhaps another that was living nearby, was captured…” Pushing prose charged with reckless uncertainty, Fuller seems a fickle arbiter of lastness.

And for a book that professes to examine the photographic record, Fuller’s formula is erratic at best. While for most species he recounts the story behind the handful of photos that comprise a species’ “photographic record,” in some cases his pen wanders of course. For the three photographs known of the ‘O’u (Psittirostra psittacea) Hawaiian honeycreeper, not a single one is described in any more detail than the one or two sentences that make up the captions.

That being said, nowhere else will you find so haunting a gallery of ghosts. Whether it’s appropriate to canonize them as angels or deem them the demons of our follies, only time will tell. But by recording these spirits’ celluloid souls between the pages of Lost Animals, perhaps we’ll better remember what we’ve already lost.

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Presumed Extinct: By Serendipity


Presumed Extinct: sooty crayfish, San Francisco horseshoe shrimp

As with the presumed extinct ivory-billed woodpecker reported in Arkansas in 2004, there is always the chance that a long-lost plant or animal will be rediscovered, thanks to persistent searching and luck. That’s true even in a busy metropolitan area like the San Francisco Bay Area. In May 2005, botanist Michael Park stumbled upon a population of Mount Diablo buckwheat (Eriogonum truncatum) on the slopes of Mount Diablo. The buckwheat was a  species long thought extinct, last seen in 1936 by UC Berkeley botany graduate student (and later Save Mount Diablo cofounder) Mary Bowerman. 

Spurred by the rediscovery of the buckwheat, it bears asking today which plants and animals endemic to – but presumed extinct in – the San Francisco Bay Area scientists continue to search for in the hope they may still be hanging on by a thread, waiting to be found and protected.

sooty crayfish (Pacifastacus nigrescens)

San Francisco horseshoe shrimp (Lightiella serendipita)

Illustration based on Shasta crayfish photo by B. Moose Peterson/WRP. Illustration by Cecil Devin-Wishing.

On one weekend every June, deep in the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the town of Isleton comes alive to celebrate its annual Crawdad Festival. Curiously enough, amid the crawdad sausages and jambalayas, the only thing missing is the native crawdad that once inhabited local streams: the sooty crayfish (Pacifastacus nigrescens). Only two other crayfish are native to California’s waters: the Shasta crayfish (P. fortis), a state and federally endangered species found only in Shasta County, and the Klamath signal crayfish (P. leniusculus klamathensis) of far Northern California. From the original 1857 description by marine biologist William Stimpson, we know only that the sooty crayfish was four inches long, blackish, and “common in the vicinity of San Francisco.” It otherwise closely resembled the Shasta crayfish. In the late 1800s the species was reportedly common in Central California streams, including Alameda and Coyote creeks, turning up on occasion in San Francisco markets.

Since the sooty crayfish has vanished without a trace, we can only guess that invasive crayfish introduced for bait and food out-competed their sooty cousins. But that hasn’t stopped ecologist Robert Leidy from looking along the upper reaches of Coyote and Alameda creeks, much of which is pristine land with a native wildlife assemblage. “People rediscover species with periodic regularity in places that are fairly well studied,” says Leidy, “As a field biologist, there’s always that sexy idea of finding something long thought extinct.”

Illustration by Devin Cecil-Wishing

The Bay’s miniature San Francisco horseshoe shrimp (Lightiella serendipita)—one of just five Lightiella species known worldwide—is a cephalocarid, among the most primitive of crustaceans, harkening back 500 million years to the Cambrian period. In 1961, Meredith L. Jones, from New York’s American Museum of Natural History, dredged four of these tiny, eyeless shrimp from the muddy sand bottom of the Bay off Point Richmond, making it the only known benthic (bottom dwelling), non-fish species endemic to the Bay. Five more were found in 1987 and 1988 off Brooks Island and Coyote Point, but none have been seen since, despite a California Academy of Sciences “bio-blitz” in search of bottom-dwelling Bay creatures in 2000. Academy curator Rich Mooi says mud samples were taken throughout the Bay where Lightiella had been reported. “I would have expected that if they were there, we would have seen them,” says Mooi. But, he adds, “[the shrimp] are tiny, they’re hard to see, and people hate going through mud.” Then Mooi hints that Lightiella just might be lurking, overlooked, in one of the academy’s many jars of Bay mud, awaiting another sifting. Any takers?

Field Guide to the Lost Species of the Bay Area

: sooty crayfish (Pacifastacus nigrescens)


FIRST/LAST RECORDED: 1857/late 1800s

RANGE: reported specifically in Alameda Creek, Coyote Creek, Steamboat Slough, and other Bay tributary streams

HABITAT: freshwater Bay tributary streams

FIELD NOTES: the sooty crayfish hasn’t been seen in over 100 years; the sooty crayfish closely resembles its cousin the Shasta crayfish (Pacifastacus fortis) but is blackish, smaller in size (4 inches long), and has more slender, hairless hands (claws)


Crayfishes (Astacidae) of North and Middle America, by Horton H. Hobbs

Ask the Naturalist—All the Crawdads You Can Eat (Bay Nature), March 13, 1996, by Michael Ellis


SPECIES: San Francisco horseshoe shrimp (Lightiella serendipita)



RANGE: known only from San Francisco Bay at Point Richmond, Brooks Island, Coyote Point

HABITAT: muddy sand bottom

FIELD NOTES: although extensive sampling has been done to rediscover this shrimp at its type locality and other collection locations, “searching” for this species amounts to sorting through Bay mud; mud-raker Richard Mooi of the California Academy of Sciences has generously offered would-be shrimp seekers the opportunity to pick through jars of mud—with the proper training, of course—to make sure no horseshoe shrimp have been overlooked— Reach Mooi at (415)321-8270.


Animals of San Francisco Bay: A Field Guide to Its Common Benthic Species, by Rich Mooi, Victor G. Smith, Margaret Gould Burke, Terrence M. Gosliner, Christina N. Piotrowski, and Rebecca K. Ritger

The account excerpted above was originally featured in the October/December 2007 issue of Bay Nature magazine.

Illustrations by Devin Cecil-Wishing.

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