10 animals that changed the world

From savvy primates to space dogs, Stuart Blackman reveals the individuals that have made the biggest impact on how we view the planet and our place in it.

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From savvy primates to space dogs, Stuart Blackman reveals the individuals that have made the biggest impact on how we view the planet and our place in it.

BBC Wildlife decided to celebrate the 10 animals that, we feel, have left the biggest paw prints on the modern world.

1 B2 THE TIGER

A tourist icon who showed wildlife can be worth more alive than dead.

Fearless, muscular and aloof – just as a tiger should be – B2 was, until late 2011, the star attraction of India’s Bandhavgarh National Park, where he was the dominant male.

Tourists, wardens, photographers and film crews all spoke of B2’s charm. They also noted his endearing – and highly unusual, for a male tiger – fondness for his cubs, with whom he would often play in full view of the cameras.

The sheer number of amateur videos of B2 online is testament to the fact that, for visitors to Bandhavgarh, a glimpse of this cat was a very special prize indeed.

Even local villagers, for whom a tiger reserve in the neighbourhood is a mixed blessing, were largely won over by the stripy celebrity on their doorstep, despite his less appealing habit of occasionally taking their livestock.

B2 became the top male after the death of his father, Charger, who had himself graced many magazine covers, and held the title for nearly a decade.

His reign is a shining example of how responsible, well-managed tiger tourism can be one of the most effective ways of protecting these cats and their habitat, giving people an economic stake in their future.

Did you know?

It is quite unusual for tigers to be so popular with local communities. Historically, they were more likely to be remembered for how many humans they had mauled. One man-eater, known as the Champawat Tiger, killed 436 people on the India-Nepal border before she was caught in 1907.

 

2 DAVID GREYBEARD THE CHIMPANZEE

The great ape who brought humankind down to Earth.

David Greybeard was not the first chimp to make tools, but he was the first to do it in front of a human who realised the significance of his skills. That person was Jane Goodall. She knew it meant that we weren’t quite as special as we liked to think.

Goodall met Greybeard in 1960, not long after she arrived at Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, to embark on what has become a groundbreaking, 50-year study of our closest relative in the wild.

Back then, tool-making was seen as the crucial ability setting humankind apart from the animals. So when Goodall told her mentor, Louis Leakey, that she’d seen David and another chimp stripping the leaves from twigs, which they used to probe termite mounds to fish for food, he replied with a telegram: “Now we must redefine ‘tool’, redefine ‘man’, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

Other animals have challenged Homo sapiens’ status as the only species capable of using language.

The chimps Washoe and Koko, for example, were taught simple sign languages in captivity, and Alex the African grey parrot learned 150 words from his animal-psychologist owner Irene Pepperberg, which he combined in phrases. But the jury is still out as to whether this is evidence of true linguistic aptitude.

Did you know? 

Greybeard was also the first chimp Goodall saw eating meat. (Until then, it was thought that chimps were vegetarian.) When Greybeard disappeared during an outbreak of pneumonia at Gombe in 1968, Goodall was heartbroken.

 

3 LAIKA THE DOMESTIC DOG

The first canine in space paved the way for human space flight.

On 3 November 1957, just a month after they had kick-started the space age by sending the first satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit, the Soviets launched Sputnik 2. And this craft – to the amazement and envy of Western onlookers, and the fury of animal lovers – had a passenger.

Laika was selected for her phlegmatic temperament and because, having been found as a stray on the streets of Moscow, she was thought to be accustomed to extremes of cold and hunger.

Her voyage was never going to be a return journey. The technology had not yet been developed to bring her home alive, and the Russians planned to euthanise her after a few days, before her oxygen supply ran out.

Not until 2002 was it officially revealed that she died only hours after the launch, probably from overheating after a technical malfunction, having made just a few circuits of the planet.

Nevertheless, the canine cosmonaut had proved that the extraordinary conditions of take-off and orbit were survivable. Another eight dogs followed in Laika’s footsteps (six of them returning home safely), beating a path for Yuri Gagarin’s manned mission in 1961.

Whether you believe Laika’s death – alone and hundreds of kilometres above the surface of the Earth – was a noble one, justifiable in the name of progress, or cruelly exploitative, she undoubtedly deserves her place in the pantheon of space exploration.

Did you know? 

Soviet artists celebrated Laika’s epic (if doomed) voyage in heroic posters, postcards and stamps, but US wags jokingly referred to her as ‘Muttnik’. The first land mammal to take to the skies was a sheep, Montauciel, who ascended to 460m in a hot-air balloon in 1783.

 

4 LOBO THE GREY WOLF

The lupine ‘King of Currumpaw’ inspired a nation to preserve nature.

Nothing would be known of Lobo the wolf were it not for the writings of the man ultimately responsible for his death in 1894.

Ernest Thompson Seton, a skilled hunter, naturalist and artist, was hired to despatch a wolf pack that had been taking livestock in the Currumpaw Valley, New Mexico. He expected the job to last a fortnight.

But Seton hadn’t counted on the cunning and determination of Lobo, the pack’s alpha male, who shunned poisoned baits and sprung hundreds of traps without being caught.

It was months before Seton finally cornered his quarry by luring him with the carcass of his mate, Blanca. Even then it took four traps, one on each leg, to stop him.

Seton couldn’t bring himself to finish off this magnificent creature, so took him alive, with a view to taming him. But Lobo died that same night – from a broken heart, wrote Seton, who never killed another wolf.

Seton decided to devote the rest of his life to convincing a nation that had been built on conquering wilderness to save what was left.

Lobo the King of Currumpaw, in which he cast himself as the villain, became the best-known tale in his 1898 book Wild Animals I Have Known. It struck a chord with many Americans, and led to the establishment of new national parks and environmental laws.

 

5 CLEVER HANS THE DOMESTIC HORSE

Hans was no maths genius, but he did teach us about science.

Look for something hard enough and it’s possible to find evidence of it, even if it’s not actually there.

Take the case of Clever Hans, the German horse who enthralled crowds at the turn of the 20th century with his apparent ability to count, spell, perform complex arithmetic, distinguish musical intervals and remember people’s names, giving the answer by stamping a hoof the right number of times.

“He can do almost everything but talk,” gushed The New York Times.

Eminent scientists of the day also hailed his genius, and it took a rigorous, unsentimental study led by a bright young psychologist called Oskar Pfungst to demonstrate what was actually going on.

In 1907, Pfungst established that Hans only ever answered questions correctly when the questioner also knew the answer. Rather than performing the mental gymnastics himself, Hans was merely responding to subtle – and unconscious – changes in the questioner’s posture and facial expression that gave him the cue to start and stop stamping.

What Hans was really revealing was the human capacity for self-deception. The Clever Hans Effect revolutionised the way we study animals and people.

Had this handsome equine – a member of the Orlov Trotter breed – been able to do everything it was claimed he could, the world would be a very different place. As it is, we have him to thank for plugging some gaping holes in the scientific method.

Did you know? 

The Clever Hans Effect influences searches by sniffer dogs, which are more likely to ‘find’ what they’re looking for if their handlers believe it’s there – even when it isn’t. This may lead to false accusations if, for example, the dog handler doesn’t like the look of the person being searched.

 

6 LUCY THE EARLY HOMINID

Our ancestor was caught in the act of coming down from the trees.

Named after the Beatles hit Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, which was being played on the camp radio on the day that anthropologists Professor Donald Johanson and Tom Gray unearthed her at Hadar in northern Ethiopia in 1974, Lucy was the most complete skeleton of a remarkable ape called Australopithecus afarensis yet found. 

A total of 47 bones were later uncovered, including vertebrae, thigh bones and part of a jaw bone, representing roughly 40 per cent of our forebear.

In life, a little over three million years ago, she would have looked rather like a modern chimpanzee, with a similarly sized brain, forward-projecting jaws and long, dangling arms.

Her curved finger bones point to her being a good climber, though her lack of grasping big toes suggests she wasn’t quite in the same league as today’s chimps.

Lucy would have stood just over 1m tall. ‘Stood’ is the important word here: her legs and pelvis are those of an ape that walked upright rather than on all fours.

This tantalising combination of features has rooted her firmly at the base of the human family tree.

It provides a snapshot of that crucial stage in our evolution when our ancestors descended from the trees, setting in motion a chain of events that eventually gave rise to a species with an ear for a catchy pop song and an inclination to ruminate on its own origins.

 

7 KEIKO THE ORCA

A film star whose real-life story still informs animal-welfare debates.

Keiko lived two lives: one on the silver screen and one off it. Both alerted the world to animal-welfare issues at dolphinaria, but it is not clear which of his two lives was the more incredible.

Rewind to 1979, when a two-year-old orca was captured off Iceland and ended up in a dolphinarium in Mexico City. Keiko then spent a decade in a small tank.

In 1993, he starred in Free Willy, a film about a maltreated captive orca befriended by a small boy who is determined to set him free. Willy survives a truck crash, leaps a harbour wall and swims off into the sunset with his family of wild orcas.

Back in the real world, the celebrity cetacean became the focus of an animal-welfare campaign, which spent an astonishing $7 million on new accommodation for him in the USA and then flew him to Iceland (he survived a crash-landing on arrival) to release him into the wild.

But in 2002, during a preparatory supervised swim in the open ocean, Keiko vanished, popping up again off Norway after swimming almost 1,600km.

He sought out human contact and his health deteriorated. In 2003, he was found dead on a beach. It was a case of life imitating art but, sadly, without the happy ending.

Did you know?

In 2009 a review of Keiko’s story published in Marine Mammal Science concluded that, in retrospect, he was unsuitable for release. The authors summed up: “While we as humans might find it appealing to free a long-term captive animal, [its] survival and wellbeing… may be severely impacted.”

 

8 DOLLY THE DOMESTIC SHEEP

The ovine clone who offered new hope for finding cures for disease.

The most famous sheep in history was born at Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute on 5 July 1996, to three mothers.

She started out as a cell extracted from the mammary gland of an adult ewe (hence her name, which honours a certain Ms Parton).

The genetic material in the cell was removed and inserted into a second ewe’s egg cell, from which the genetic content had been removed.

This egg was then stimulated by an electrical shock to make it start dividing like a proper embryo.

Finally it was implanted into the uterus of a surrogate mother.

As the first mammal to be cloned successfully from another adult, Dolly opened a Pandora’s box of scientific possibilities and ethical, philosophical and legal conundrums.

Cats, dogs, horses, cows and many other mammals have since been cloned. But the real impact of Dolly’s extraordinary start to life is yet to be felt.

There are serious technological and ethical obstacles to cloning humans for reproductive purposes. But therapeutic cloning, in which a clonal embryo like Dolly’s is produced as a source of donor cells and tissues for the treatment of degenerative diseases, is a buzzing sphere of research.

Conservationists also hope that cloning might reincarnate extinct species from the genetic material taken from frozen specimens.

In 2009, biologists came tantalisingly close when they cloned a Pyrenean ibex; it died soon after birth. If they succeed, will we live to see mammoths on Earth, too?

Did you know?

Dolly wasn’t the first cloned sheep. That honour goes to Megan and Morag, who had been born a year earlier, but without the media fanfare. Cloned from embryos rather than adult ewes, they were created by nuclear transfer, the same technological breakthrough that resulted in Dolly.

 

9 MARTHA THE PASSENGER PIGEON

Her stuffed body reminds us that we can lose even abundant species.

At the end of the 18th century, perhaps two in every five birds in North America were passenger pigeons.

There may have been six billion of them, split between a handful of flocks so vast that they blackened the sky for days as they passed overhead.

To hunters, these nomadic birds seemed a limitless resource. How wrong they were. Guns, nets, poison and fire were deployed against the pigeons on an industrial scale, precipitating a catastrophic decline in their numbers from 1870.

Emergency legislation to protect the species came too late, and captive breeding failed.

By 1910, Martha was the world’s last passenger pigeon. She died four years later and her body was given to the Smithsonian Institution.

Many other birds, from the dodo to the eskimo curlew, have met similar fates. Today, preserved as museum exhibits, they serve as a warning that we can all too easily lose even the most bounteous creatures.

 

10 JAWS THE GREAT WHITE SHARK

A giant of the big screen that gave the world’s sharks a bad name.

Don’t go in the water” ran the tagline. And, after Jaws hit the cinemas in 1975, many didn’t. Thirty-seven years later, it’s still almost impossible to go for a moonlit skinny-dip without the dun dun, dun dun theme popping into your head.

Much more seriously, Jaws reinforced negative stereotypes of sharks as insatiable, vindictive man-eaters.

Many conservationists have accused our cartilaginous anti-hero of prompting a massive decline in shark numbers – not just great whites – as trophy hunters and competition anglers, particularly in the USA, took to the seas to slay their own monsters.

Today, a third of all species of sharks and their relatives are threatened, though commercial fisheries are the main culprit.

Before his death in 2006, Peter Benchley, whose eponymous 1974 novel started it all, said that, had he known what we do now, he would have written a very different (and presumably far less thrilling) story, which cast Jaws as the hero rather than the bad guy.

But maybe we have Jaws to thank for the fact that we do know more. The blockbuster film generated a surge of scientific interest in what was then a woefully poorly studied group, plus a wealth of research funds.

Did you know? 

As the first film to open at hundreds of screens at once, accompanied by a huge marketing campaign, Jaws also changed the world of cinema. This is standard practice now, but in 1975 it was revolutionary. Jaws is the seventh-highest earning film in history, adjusted for inflation.

 

Discover everything you ever wanted to know about sharks. 

View a tiger photo gallery. 

Read about orcas in the British Isles. 

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