Endlings, Endings and New Beginnings
In April 1996, two men working at a convalescent center wrote a letter to the journal Nature proposing that a new word be adopted to designate a person or individual of a species that is the last in the lineage: endling. This had come up because of patients who were dying and thought of themselves as the last of their lineage. The word appears to have never caught on. Then, in 2001, when the National Museum of Australia (NMA) opened its doors, it featured a gallery called Tangled Destinies and endling reappeared. On the wall above a case with two thylacine specimens was written: Endling (n.) The last surviving individual of a species of animal or plant.
In this paper, I will examine the tensions between narratives of the extinction of a species with the death of last individual and a general unwillingness to believe the species has been lost. Using the historical cases of the European beaver’s extinction in Sweden and the thylacine’s extinction in Australia, I will trace the stories about a species’ end yet potential survival. In both places, the remoteness of the countryside led to continued belief for up to several decades after the last known individual died that individuals could be found alive. Yet as time progressed, the reality of the loss set in and new narratives told/invented the stories of the endlings, the last, to mourn and commemorate the lost. These somber narratives were counterbalanced by hopes of return -- through reintroduction for the beaver and deextinction for the thylacine. Looking at the interplay of these historical narratives, we see both despair and hope as reactions to extinction.
Dolly Jørgensen is an environmental historian who has researched a broad array of topics, including medieval forestry management, late medieval urban sanitation, the modern practice of converting offshore oil structures into artificial reefs, and environmentalism in science fiction. She was a practicing environmental engineer before earning a PhD in history from the University of Virginia, USA, in 2008. She is currently employed at the Department of Ecology & Environmental Science, Umeå University, Sweden, where she is working on a comparative history of animal reintroduction in Norway and Sweden.