Welcome to Friday Fiction Facts: sciency things that fiction writers need to know.

Your novel is set in Europe in Roman times, say 2000 years ago. You’ve got your villagers, soldiers, royalty, hero, sidekick, love interest, and your quest. You know what everyone is wearing, how they cook their food, what weapons they use, and what their homes, castles, and surroundings look like. Everything is good to go.  Let the writing begin!

But wait. These folks are living in and traveling through forests, across the steppes, and over the mountains. They are hunting game, fishing in lakes, and witnessing the return of migratory birds in the spring.  True, many of the animals they encounter will be the same as we have today.  But here is a question: What animals might they encounter that are unfamiliar to us?

To answer that, here are 5 Extinct animals from Roman times —

BARBARY LION (Panthera leo leo)

A Barbary lion from Algeria. Photographed by Sir Alfred Edward Pease around 1893.

The decline of Barbary Lions in reality began with the ascendancy of the Roman Empire. The Romans captured thousands of these majestic creatures from the wild and moved them into private menageries and gladiatorial arenas across their dominions.  – From Ofcats.com

These are the majestic lions of Roman arenas and gladiators.  Also prized by collectors, several Barbary Lions were kept in a menagerie in the Tower of London during the Middle Ages.

Shorter than their modern savanna cousins by almost a foot, Barbary Lions were still the largest sub-species of lion. They were long and stocky, with males weighing up to 500 lbs. The males sported a distinctive dark mane which extended along their backs, down their shoulders and underneath the belly.  These huge carnivores hunted Barbary sheep, boar, Cuvier’s gazelles and Barbary stags. They also took their share of domestic sheep, cattle, and horses.

Barbary Lions were native to Northern Africa’s Atlas Mountains, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. A hunter killed the last Barbary Lion in the wild in Morocco in 1920.

On an interesting note, through DNA analysis, some captive lions have been found to carry Barbary Lion genetics. These animals are currently being bred in the hopes of recreating the species.

Pyrenean Ibex from 'Wild oxen, sheep & goats of all lands, living and extinct' (1898) by Richard Lydecker.

PYRENEAN IBEX (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica)

The Pyrenean ibex was a subspecies of the Spanish ibex, itself a close relative of the well-known ibex of the Alps. These beautiful goats, with their long sweeping horns, ranged across the Pyrenees Mountains in France and Spain and surrounding areas.   The very last one – a female named Celia–was killed, possibly by a tree, in 2000.

The Pyrenean Ibex has the distinction of being the first animal to become “un-extinct” – at least for a few minutes. In 2009, using the cryopreserved DNA taken from the last Ibex just after her death, scientists successfully created a clone. The embryo was implanted into a domestic goat, but sadly the infant died just minutes after her birth. However, the experiment does show the promise of reviving lost species from preserved DNA.



THE GREAT AUK (Pinguinus impennis),

Great Auk specimen in Glasgow (and replica egg)

Excavations of a Roman settlement near Velsen, Holland, revealed a skeleton of the Great Auk. There have also been found some bones in Rotterdam, Holland. – Peter Maas

The Great Auk was the last flightless seabird of the Northern Hemisphere. They were large birds, standing a meter tall and weighing about 11 pounds.  Though typically pictured in black and white plumage, the bird had summer and winter color phases and distinct markings for each of those seasons.

They were strong swimmers and divers and, with the exception of breeding season, spent their whole lives at sea. In May, huge noisy colonies would gather on islands off the coast of Scotland, Iceland, and possibly Greenland and Norway (as well as North America) to breed, lay their eggs, and raise young.

Their ultimate extinction was caused by the collection of specimens for museums and private collectors; on Eldey Island, Iceland, in 1844, the last 2 confirmed adults were beaten to death for European collectors.

TARPAN (Equus ferus ferus)

The only photo of a live Tarpan (1844)

Herds of tarpans (or European wild horses) once roamed throughout the open forests of Southern France and Spain and across the steppes of Eastern Europe and central Russia. They were domesticated in Russia about 5,000 years ago and are considered to be the ancestors of domestic horses.  The Lascaux cave drawings and other European cave paintings of horses were probably tarpans.

This primitive horse slowly became absorbed into the domestic horse population throughout the 1700’s and 1800’s.  The remaining wild stock was hunted to extinction for food. It is thought that the last wild tarpan was accidentally killed during a capture attempt between 1875 and 1890.  The last captive one died in a Russian zoo in 1909.

AUROCH (Bos primigenius)

Size comparison of an auroch vs domestic cow (wikipedia)

Aurochs were huge wild cattle that lived in forests and swamps across most of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, southern Russia and eastern Asia. The bulls may have been as large as 5’ 10” (180 cm) high at the shoulder and both sexes sported forward-curving horns.

The animals lived in herds made up of females, calves, and sub-adult males. Bulls joined the herd only for breeding, which took place in late summer; calves were born in May or June.

Between 1300 BC and 1420 AD the population of aurochs declined, mostly due to hunting and competition with domestic cattle.  Charlemagne and other great leaders and rich folk hunted aurochs for sport.   Also, because they were so large and imposing, many aurochs were captured by ancient Romans and transported to Italy to be used in arena fights.  This implies that aurochs were extinct in Italy by this time.  In the Netherlands there are no aurochs remains dated after about 400 BC.  There is evidence that aurochs were present in France, Germany and Switzerland up to 1000 AD.   The last aurochs died in Poland in 1627.


Peter Maas: The 6th Extinction

The Committee on Recently Extinct Organisms

Portions of this entry are taken from my answer to this Google Answers question. All work is my own.