UCL News


125th anniversary of extinction of quagga - now rarest skeleton in world

11 August 2008

Tuesday 12 August 2008 marks the 125th anniversary of the extinction of the quagga - a South African zebra that had a stripy front and a brown behind.

The last individual, a mare, died in Amsterdam Zoo in 1883, the rest of her kind having died out in the 1870s. The Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL (University College London) is the only museum in England to house a quagga's skeleton, which is one of only seven skeletons in the world - making it the rarest skeleton on the planet.

Jack Ashby, UCL zoologist at the Grant Museum of Zoology, says: "Humans have driven thousands of animals to extinction in the past 200 years, and the quagga is just one of them. Quaggas competed with farmers' domestic livestock for precious grassland in the drier areas of South Africa, and so were hunted heavily to allow farming to benefit. Their unusual pelts were also highly sought after and these two factors effectively led to quaggas disappearing altogether. Without specimens like the one at the Grant Museum, all scientifically useful records of extinct species would vanish too. The only known photos of a living quagga are also linked to London - taken at the London Zoo soon before the species died out."

In the last 50 years, by studying museum specimens, it was discovered that quaggas were not a distinct species, but rather a sub-species of plains zebra, which separated from the main group around 200,000 years ago. Using this information, zoologists at the South Africa Museum have been attempting to breed the animals back from extinction, by pairing together living plains zebras that are not very stripy.

England's only quagga skeleton, at the Grant Museum, unfortunately only has three legs. It is believed that the missing limb was lost in World War Two: either when the Royal College of Surgeons, where it may have been on loan, was bombed, or during the UCL Zoology Department evacuation to Bangor, Wales.

Notes for Editors

1.      Journalists seeking more information should contact Jack Ashby, Learning and Access Manager at the Grant Museum of Zoology, on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 2647, email: j.ashby@ucl.ac.uk or contact Jenny Gimpel in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9726, mobile: +44 (0)7747 565 056, out of hours: +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail: j.gimpel@ucl.ac.uk
2.      Images of the skeleton and a depiction of the quagga are available from Jack Ashby or Jenny Gimpel.
3.      The Grant Museum of Zoology is open to the public every weekday afternoon from 1-5pm (except bank holidays). It is housed in UCL's Darwin Building on Gower Street, but its new entrance is from Malet Place, off Torrington Place, WC1. For more information, visit http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/zoology/.