Animals American Settlers Would Have Seen, But We Never Will

When the first Europeans arrived in North America, the landscape didn't just look different from today - it featured extinct animals most of us wouldn't recognize. The sky swarmed with pink-breasted pigeons and colorful parakeets, seals played in the Gulf of Mexico, and Native American tribes raised dog breeds that would make you do a double take. 

The extinct species that once lived in North America spanned from bears to butterflies. Many of these animals were hunted to extinction by humans, while others faded from history without a clear explanation. These endangered creatures left holes in their ecosystem, and many habitats changed forever. Sadly, you won't see these animals in your lifetime - unless you visit a natural history museum.

  • Great Auk

    The great auk was a flightless seabird that lived along the East Coast of both the United States and Canada, as well as Iceland, Greenland, and the British Isles. The last pair of nesting great auks passed in 1844, when hunters captured and killed them in Iceland - and stepped on their egg. 1852, meanwhile, marks the final time a living great auk was spotted.

    The great auk spent most of its time in the water, only coming ashore to breed. The large birds stood out from penguins as easy targets for hunters, who valued their meat and feathers.

  • Mexican Grizzly Bear

    Mexican Grizzly Bear
    Photo: Enos Abijah Mills / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Mexican grizzly bears were once native to northern Mexico, along with parts of Arizona and New Mexico. The brown bears were slightly smaller than other North American grizzlies, and sported golden or silvery coats. Cattle ranchers considered them pests and indiscriminately dispatched the grizzlies to maintain their land.

    Though eventually named a protected species, many researchers believe the bears all went extinct by 1969.

  • Carolina parakeets are considered America's only native parrot species. The small, colorful birds were once native to the Southeastern US, and extremely plentiful at that. Populations ranged from Colorado to New York, but the parakeets were especially abundant in Florida, Georgia, and along the coasts of North and South Carolina.

    By 1918, the last captive Carolina parakeet died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Scientists remain unsure about what caused their extinction.

  • Caribbean Monk Seal

    Caribbean Monk Seal
    Photo: New York Zoological Society / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Caribbean monk seal, which ranged throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, is the first species of seal believed to become extinct explicitly because of humans. Hunters poached the seals as they rested and nursed on beaches, and the last confirmed Caribbean monk seal sighting occurred in 1952.

    They only officially received extinction status in 2008, however, more than 50 years later. The Caribbean monk seal was the only species of seal native to the region.

  • Florida Black Wolf

    Florida Black Wolf
    Photo: John James Audubon / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Florida black wolf was possibly a subspecies of gray wolf or coyote, though researchers disagree on both assertions. They may have even been genetically distinct from the two species. The dark-colored wolves roamed throughout the state of Florida until 1908, when officially declared extinct.

    They were ultimately hunted and crowded out of a habitat they shared with the Florida red wolf, which became extinct in 1921. 

  • Passenger Pigeon

    To say passenger pigeons lived in America is an understatement. They thrived in the early 1800s, with migrating flocks numbering in the hundreds of millions, which supposedly took several hours to pass overhead. But by the 1890s, those flocks only contained a few dozen birds. 

    Martha, the last living passenger pigeon, passed at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Experts agree they were hunted to extinction, since people didn't believe any amount of hunting could reduce their substantial numbers.