When youngsters discover that a plethora of unusual and sometimes frightening animals once existed, it fills their minds with wonder and often prompts them to delve further into the natural sciences. Although the number of extinct species is staggering, it is often the more commonly recognised specimens from among the vanished that stimulate the imagination and curiosity of future scholars.
The Sarcosuchus Imperator, or flesh crocodile emperor, was a huge reptile that lived in what is now called sub-Saharan Africa approximately 110 million years ago, when that landscape still contained a scattering of rivers and other aquatic bodies. According to the National Geographic Society, this ancient crocodile-like creature grew to a length of 40 feet and weighed approximately 10 tons. These fearsome forebears of today's alligators and crocodiles attacked their prey by crushing it with powerful jaws that approached 6 feet in length.
Although various types of cats with sharp, elongated canines once existed, the sabre-toothed tiger best captures the attention of young minds. While this frightening carnivore was about a foot shorter in length than today's lion, it carried almost twice the amount of weight and was capable of delivering a fatal blow to its prey by tearing open the victim's flesh in its vital regions. The sabre-toothed tiger passed into extinction some 10,000 years ago.
Mammoths were elephant-like animals that originated in Africa approximately 1.65 million years ago. They were characterised by their woolly coats and large tusks. The steppe mammoths of Siberia grew to a height of about 14 feet and weighed over 11 tons. While most mammoths disappeared some 10,000 years ago, there is evidence that a small colony of these creatures continued to exist on Russia's Wrangel Island until around 1700 B.C.
Of all the extinct animal types, it is the dinosaur that most stimulates a child's imagination. These creatures, which varied greatly in size, diet and survival strategies, dominated the Earth for approximately 150 million years. The most recognisable dinosaur species to children are likely the Apatosaurus, a huge plant eater formerly known as the Brontosaurus, and the fearsome Tyrannosaurus, a tall, 7-ton, flesh-eating monster with razor-sharp teeth 8 inches in length. The dinosaurs suddenly went extinct some 60 million years ago, possibly due to the Earth's collision with an asteroid.
Museums are among the best places for teaching kids about extinct animals. Many of these facilities offer exhibits in palaeontology and the natural sciences, where youngsters can view firsthand ancient fossils and skeletons of creatures that disappeared aeons ago. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. operates a Museum of Natural History, which features exhibits on both extinct and modern animals.