Saber-Tooth Cat. Image credit: Daniel Eskridge via Shutterstock

7 Extinct Animals of Ancient History

Extinction is a commonly occurring part of nature’s cycle. While it is not known exactly how many species have lived over the course of Earth’s history, common estimates propose that around four billion species have evolved on Earth. Of the total number of species that have ever lived, the vast majority have gone extinct. There are countless fascinating animals that would have wowed you if they were alive today and some of which even walked the Earth at the same time as early humans!

This article will peer backward through time and take a look at seven extinct animals from ancient history.

Dire Wolf

Skeleton of Dire Wolf. Image credit: Jonathan Chen via Creative Commons

Dire wolves are not just legends; they were real animals that lived during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene periods. Although dire wolves have a reputation for being much larger than modern wolves, the recovered fossils have varied in size. The last dire wolf, thought to have gone extinct over 10,000 years ago, died out during the end of the most recent ice age along with woolly mammoths and saber-tooth cats.

Recent findings suggest that these predators were not actually wolves, and instead branched off from a common ancestor in their evolution. Up until a few years ago, dire wolves were part of the genus Canis, which encapsulates wolves, coyotes, and the modern dog. However, DNA samples collected from preserved dire wolf remains have revealed that the dire “wolf” actually belongs to its own lineage, the genus Aenocyon, meaning that it is not a wolf at all.

Giant Beaver

Skeleton of Giant Beaver on display at the Minnesota Science Museum. Image credit: Ryan Somma via Creative Commons

Also known as Castoroides, these ancient giant beavers grew larger than 2 meters in length, twice as large as their living relatives. They had massive front teeth and powerful jaws, allowing them to gnaw trees and branches, and large claws, used for digging burrows in the ground. Indigenous to North America, and weighing up to 200 pounds, the giant beaver is one of the largest rodents of all time.

The giant beaver went extinct over 10,000 years ago. While the exact date and the reason for extinction are unknown, this beaver disappeared soon after or during the transition from the Pleistocene epoch to the Holocene.

Dwarf Elephant

Jaw bone from a Dwarf Elephant. Image credit: Zde via Creative Commons

As the name suggests, the dwarf elephant is one of the smallest elephants to have ever lived. Dwarf elephants were first discovered on the small island of Tilos in Greece. The dwarf elephant provides an example of insular dwarfism, a phenomenon where a species shrinks over time as a method of survival. The smaller size allowed it to conserve more energy, adjusting to scarce resources. Believed to be the last elephant species to live in Europe, the dwarf elephant died out roughly 4,000 years ago, around the same time as the development of the first written form of language.

The dwarf elephant was actually alive during much of humanity’s ancient history, living throughout most of the Holocene epoch. Remains of the dwarf elephant discovered alongside neolithic tools, point towards a possible coexistence. Yet, it remains undetermined whether early humans ever actually came into contact with these elephants.

Woolly Mammoth

Woolly Mammoths. Image credit: Mauricio Antón via Creative Commons

Perhaps one of the most well-known on this list, the woolly mammoth is a mammal of the family Elephantidae that lived during the Pleistocene era. Woolly mammoths were well known for their large tusks and wooly coat. Their coarse hair, made up of two layers, was a necessary adaptation to keep the mammoths warm in the cold temperatures of the late Pleistocene ice age. They were also staggeringly large, weighing in at around six tonnes.

Historically, humans thought that the woolly mammoth came to extinction due to early hunter-gatherers. However, recent research has challenged this theory on the basis that the primitive tools used by our ancestors at the time would not have been strong enough to penetrate their thick hides.
Other theories have suggested that climate change during the interglacial period was mainly responsible for their extinction. In any case, extinctions are often the result of multiple factors contributing over time, and the woolly mammoth is no exception.

Saber-Tooth Cat

Skeleton of Saber-toothed cat on display at  Cincinnati Museum. Image credit: James St. John via Creative Commons

Another well-known animal from ancient history, the saber-tooth cat, is an apex predator that lived across a variety of continents, including North America, South America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. The fact that they were apex predators meant they had little to be afraid of, and aside from climate constraints they could live in any region, which is why they lived on so many continents.

Fossils of these large cats date 56 million years back, during the mid to late Eocene era. Their defining feature is their long, sharp canine teeth that jut below their jaw, giving them their iconic name. These cats were also very large, with some species of saber-tooth reaching nearly eight feet in length. The closest living relative to the saber-tooth cat is the clouded leopard.


Glyptodon. Image credit: Pavel.Riha.CB. via Creative Commons

The glyptodon is an extinct genus of mammals that lived in South America and parts of North America 5 million to 11,000 years ago. Related to the modern armadillo, the bone plating covering their body gave them an armored shell that offered full protection. The glyptodon, however, had a few noteworthy attributes that set them apart.

The first was their size. Glyptodon grew to almost 3 meters in length and 1.5 meters in height and weighed up to 4,000 lbs, although some subspecies of glyptodons were slightly smaller than this. Larger glyptodons generally had wider jaws, which was due to their need to bulk feed or to ingest a wider range of foods to accommodate for the energy demands of their larger size.
Some types of glyptodon had rigid, bony plating on their tails. The primary use of their tails would have been during territory or mating disputes, and to defend against predators. Glyptodons were highly specialized mammals, equipped to survive in their environment, but sadly they died out over 10,000 years ago.


Megatherium rendering without fur. Image credit: Marcus Bukhardt via Creative Commons

The megatherium is an enormous species of sloth. The word megatherium comes from the Greek words "mega" (meaning "great") and "therion" (meaning "beast" or “animal”). These colossal sloths lived primarily in South and Central America as early as 400,000 years ago.

They are closely related to modern tree sloths, except these sloths spent most of their time walking on the ground. Since they were so tall when standing on their hind legs — with a length of nearly 4 meters — they roved around woodlands or grasslands eating plants and fruits from trees. This means they did not have to worry about climbing trees, a feat which would have been difficult with a weight of roughly 8,000 lbs.
However, the strong limbs of the megatherium allowed it to move around and pull itself up with relative ease. These monolith mammals also had powerful jaws, which some argue may have allowed this sloth to incorporate an omnivorous diet. Like many on this list, megatheriums went extinct about 10,000 years ago.


The late Pleistocene to early Holocene was a fascinating time period full of wondrous and wicked beasts. Extinctions often occur due to a myriad of factors, but the transition from glacial to inter-glacial during this time period is likely the main culprit for the doom of these species.

Since our ancestors walked the earth with the animals in this list, it is possible that human involvement was also a factor, but it is hard for us to know for sure. While it would have been awe-inspiring to have seen these megafaunas, it is fantastic that scientists know enough about them that we can imagine what it might have been like to walk side by side with these incredible animals.

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