Maybe it was tasty, too, because its bones are found abundantly in old kitchen middens on the California Channel Islands and along the coast. Although with all that diving it must have been tough. Tough and fishy. (Plenty of tough fishy meat for the whole gang!)
This extinct diver is called Chendytes lawii. (I'm saying chen DIE teez.) Here's a picture made by Stanton F. Fink, who likes to portray extinct creatures.
I wouldn't have expected it to be so blue, but who knows? (I also like Fink's shastasaurs.)
Chendytes only went extinct around 2,500-3,000 years ago. We just missed it.
A Chendytes bone 10,000 years old was found in a cave on San Miguel Island. Maybe a duck-eating person left it there, or maybe it was some other duck-eating animal. Yeah, yeah, or maybe it tottered in there to be alone.
Chendytes is material for arguments about human-caused extinction. This charming big duck (imagine if you were hungry and this enormous creature popped up to the water surface within easy clubbing distance – you'd be totally charmed) became extinct before the arrival of Europeans, so we can't blame so-called Western civilization. (Actually, I bet netting was a more likely technique than clubbing, but clubbing sounds cartoonier.)
It's generally thought that an earlier Western civilization, that of the coastal Indians of California, drove or helped drive Chendytes to extinction. Climate changes may have contributed. But there is debate about whether it can be considered a late, outlying part of a hypothesized Pleistocene Overkill in North America, or whether its demise is actually evidence against an overkill “blitzkrieg.”
Here's the deal. A whole bunch of very large North American mammals went extinct right about the time humans (from the Clovis culture) showed up, about 11,000-13,000 years ago. Mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, 8-foot long beavers, the stag-moose, a large camel – there must have been thundering herds everywhere you turned. As these species vanished, other species that preyed upon them or scavenged their carcasses, like saber-toothed cats (gone) or like condors (barely hanging on) were affected too.
Did they vanish because we killed them off, or because of climate change or other factors, or some of each? And if we killed them off, did it happen so fast because we indulged in “overkill”? The idea is that people killed far more than they could eat. The classic – and often repeated – example of this is the buffalo jump, in which a big herd of buffalo is chased off a cliff. (It doesn't seem like it's so easy to stage a buffalo jump, but I admit I've never tried.)
There's fierce debate about this. Some people would include Chendytes as an example of big animals wiped out. (See Tim Flannery, The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples.) Others cite Chendytes as a counter-example – the species co-existed with people for thousands of years before it went extinct. Some say that's because they were relatively safe on the islands.
But Jones, et al. (T. L. Jones, J. F. Porcasi, J. M. Erlandson, H. Dallas, Jr., T. A. Wake, and R. Schwaderer) say that people seem to have been in the Channel Islands for about 11,500 years, so it took about 8,000 years to eat the last Chendytes. In “The protracted Holocene extinction of California’s flightless sea duck (Chendytes lawi) and its implications for the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis” Jones et al. argue that if it took so long for humans to hunt out Chendytes, it should have taken them a comparable time to eliminate other species. So maybe it was something else that happened to the megafauna.
Opinions differ on when Native Californians had boats that enabled them to get to the nesting islands that were probably Chendytes's last stronghold. (I say: right away. People always turn out to have been boating longer than we thought.)
Thus some say we co-existed with Chendytes for millennia. Others say we wiped Chendytes out practically the minute we got the seafaring equipment to get out to the nesting places and gorge ourselves (on tough fishy meat).
Occasionally I think about a Pleistocene Revival event, in which a little DNA cut-and-paste work would bring back cool megafauna. I'd love to see mastodons and mammoths and those giant beavers. (Did they make huge dams?) But if you didn't bring back giant predators the giant herbivores would multiply crazily. I'm not ready for dire wolves and saber-toothed cats. I'm not even sure how we would manage with the herbivores. Mastodons in the arboretum would not be popular. If you don't like gophers in your garden, you're gonna hate ground sloths. People skipping to the fruit stand for the beginning of cherry season would be upset to learn that giant camels had beaten them to it.
I was thinking that Chendytes might be easier to get along with. What if we could re-create them and let them hang out on the Channel Islands again? With our effete modern eating habits, most of us would readily agree not to eat those tough fishy types. Huge diving ducks! What could be bad?
Oh no. Unless they went after our shellfish.