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West Virginia once hosted a variety of prehistoric animals, including giant sloths, mastodons and wooly mammoths. While some survived into recent prehistory, others became extinct long before humans arrived in North America. While the retreating glaciers and ending of the Ice Ages were a factor, man was a primary element in recent extirpations and extinctions.
The Fossil Record
Thomas Jefferson took a deep interest in the fossil records of West Virginia, suggesting the name Megalonyx when the claws of a giant sloth (Megalonyx jeffersonii), now known as Jefferson's ground sloth, were found in 1796. While the fossil records also include the saber-toothed cat (Smilodon spp.) and dire wolf (Canis dirus), many of these species died out long before humans arrived in West Virginia. The wooly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) and the American mastodon (Mammut americanum), however, were still thriving in North America and hunted by the Native Americans' ancestors 12,500 years ago. When the Ice Age ended and the weather warmed, mammoths and mastodons became extinct.
When European settlers arrived in North America, there were clouds of birds in the sky, such as the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and the only native parrot species, the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis). Passenger pigeons were killed by the millions as food and for their feathers. By 1900 there were none left in the wild. The Carolina parakeets traveled in flocks of 100 to 1,000 birds, destroying fruit and food crops. The last wild bird was killed in 1920. Also hunted to extinction were the eastern elk (Cervus elaphus canadensis) and the eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar). Believed extinct since the 1930s, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officially declared the eastern cougar extinct in 2011.
Some West Virginia species are extirpated, or regionally extinct, while significant populations exist in other parts of North America. The American bison (Bison bison) once ranged over most of central and eastern North America; however, in West Virginia the bison was extirpated due to over hunting, with the last being killed in 1825. While bison were killed for meat and skins, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) competed with humans for game and sometimes killed livestock. Until 1822, bounties were paid on wolves -- the last known gray wolf in West Virginia was killed in 1900.
A few species that were extirpated in West Virginia have been rediscovered, including the Big Sandy crayfish (Cambarus veteranus), which was found in 2010. Other species that were successfully reintroduced after over hunting resulted in extirpation include the American beaver (Castor canadensis), reintroduced in the 1930s, the fisher (Martes pennanti), also known as the black fox, in 1969 and the northern river otter (Lontra canadensis), in 1985. In addition, the Virgina white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus virginianus) was officially reported as having a zero population in 1890, but with legal protections and careful management, white-tailed deer were successfully reestablished in West Virginia.
- The Paleontology Portal: West Virginia, US
- Council for West Virginia Archaeology: The Kanawha Valley and its Prehistoric People
- IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Ectopistes Migratorius
- Animal Diversity Web: Conuropsis Carolinensis -- Carolina Parakeet
- West Virginia Division of Natural Resources: Mammals of West Virginia
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Northeast Region: Eastern Cougar
- IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Bison Bison
- IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Cambarus Veteranus
- e-WV: Mammals
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images