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Has an animal ever evolved itself into extinction? © PLOS Biology/Wikipedia

Has an animal ever evolved itself into extinction?

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Bad news for all the selective eaters out there, once you've polished off your only source of food you've had your chips.

Asked by: Matthew Cox, Wantage


It’s quite hard for a predator to drive itself extinct simply by being such a good hunter that it eats all of the available prey. Normally, evolution is a very slow process and predators are engaged in an ongoing arms race with their prey, who are also evolving new ways to escape.

If the balance starts to shift in favour of the predator, the amount of available food dwindles and the predators aren’t able to raise as many young. This allows the prey population to recover and equilibrium is restored.

But when a predator specialises to hunt a single prey species, it can get trapped in an evolutionary dead end. This happened to the Haast’s eagle in New Zealand, which had evolved to prey exclusively on the flightless moa bird. When humans arrived in the 13th Century, the moa were hunted to extinction within 200 years. The Haast’s eagle couldn’t adapt to find new prey and went extinct too.

This phenomenon, known as ‘coextinction’, is also common with parasites that have adapted to live on a single host animal.

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Luis VillazonQ&A expert

Luis trained as a zoologist, but now works as a science and technology educator. In his spare time he builds 3D-printed robots, in the hope that he will be spared when the revolution inevitably comes.


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