40 Animals that Changed History
40 Animals that Changed History

40 Animals that Changed History

Tim Flight - November 5, 2019

40 Animals that Changed History
King William III of England, painted by Godfrey Kneller, 1680s. Wikimedia Commons

24. William of Orange’s horse tripped on a molehill, killing him to the delight of Jacobites

William of Orange overthrew King James II of England during the Glorious Revolution. As an impostor and a foreigner, many people hated his guts. One day, William was riding in Hampton Court Palace’s grounds when his horse tripped on a molehill. The resulting fall broke his collarbone, exacerbating his long-term respiratory problems, and he died of pneumonia. Anne, James II’s daughter, succeeded the childless William. Up in Scotland, the Jacobites – who wanted James II back on the throne – were delighted. In the deadly mole’s honour, Jacobites introduced a toast ‘to the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat’.

40 Animals that Changed History
Another futile blow to the emu cause in late 1932. Wikimedia Commons

23. In 1932, Australia went to war with emus, and lost

When World War I veterans returned to Australia, the government rewarded them with farmland. Unfortunately, no one told the local emus these men were heroes. 20,000 of the large, flightless birds feasted on wheat crops, decimating whole farms. The veterans, many of them trained marksmen, couldn’t cope. In 1932, the government sent in the Australian military. However, emus proved to be very smart and surprisingly hard to shoot. It took on average 10 bullets to down a single bird. With no real reduction in the emu population, the Australians surrendered: the emus won the Great Emu War!

40 Animals that Changed History
An 1895 depiction of the Stephens Island Wren. Wikimedia Commons

22. In the late 19th century, Tibbles the Cat exterminated the Stephen Island Wren, alerting New Zealanders to their ecological impact

In 1894, David Lyall moved to Stephens Island, just off South Island, New Zealand. While Lyall manned the lighthouse, his cat, Tibbles, went hunting, and always brought back the same type of bird. Intrigued, Lyall sent the birds off to ornithologists, who proclaimed it a new species. Too late: within a year, Tibbles had hunted the Stephens Island Wren to extinction! Evidence has subsequently shown it once lived across New Zealand. Having evolved in a world without predators, it didn’t stand a chance when settlers arrived with cats and dogs. The wren’s extermination alerted New Zealanders to their ecological impact.

40 Animals that Changed History
Nikola Tesla in his Manhattan lab, 1896. Wikimedia Commons

21. A pigeon ended Nikola Tesla’s scientific career in 1922

Nikola Tesla spent his life inventing and experimenting with electricity. We owe him a lot in the modern world, but not many people know how much he loved pigeons. Tesla never married, fearing a wife would distract him from his work, but allowed himself to be sentimental about pigeons. One night in 1922, Tesla’s favorite pigeon flew into his hotel room, and promptly died. Tesla believed it came to tell him of its impending death, and at that moment decided his scientific career had also died. Spookily, Tesla said the dying bird’s eyes shone brighter than any light he’d seen…

40 Animals that Changed History
Depiction of Lobo from the 1908 edition of Lobo, Rag and Vixen by Ernest Seton Thompson. Wikimedia Commons

20. Lobo the wolf inspired the US to protect its wildlife at the turn of the 20th century

Lobo, ‘the King of Currumpaw’, is another conservation icon. In Wild Animals I Have Known (1898), Ernest Thompson Seton told how he tried to kill Lobo for a bounty. Deprived of their natural prey, Lobo and his pack had turned to livestock. Seton only caught the pugnacious Lobo alive after killing the rest of his pack. But, touched by Lobo’s bravery, evident grief, and sentience, Seton couldn’t kill him. Instead, Lobo died ‘of a broken heart’, looking out across his former kingdom. Lobo’s story helped change attitudes towards wolves, and influenced the founding of the US conservation movement.

40 Animals that Changed History
Wilhelm von Osten and Clever Hans, Germany, 1908. Wikimedia Commons

19. Clever Hans the counting horse changed the scientific method forever in 1907

In the early 20th century, Clever Hans the horse amazed people across Germany. Touring the country with his trainer, Wilhelm von Osten, Hans showed a staggering intellectual ability. People watched, mouths agape, as Hans added, subtracted, divided, and multiplied. He also read, spelled words, and understood German. Eventually, the intelligentsia took note, and examined Hans and Wilhelm. Led by Oskar Pfungst, the Hans Commission found that Hans actually responded to his trainer’s unconscious visual cues. Though Hans didn’t turn out to be as clever as people thought, his story changed the scientific method. Ever since, psychological tests have been double-blind.

40 Animals that Changed History
Beware of the dog mosaic, House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii, 1st Century AD. The Outlook

18. The domestication of dogs 14,000 years ago changed the course of history

When our ancestors first flung scraps to habituated wolves lurking by their campfires, they unwittingly changed the course of history. These domesticated wolves, over many generations, radically changed the human story. First, they helped us hunt more successfully, stopping us from starving to death. At the same time, they protected us from predators, allowing us to flourish in greater numbers. When humans began farming, they kept predators away from livestock. Quite simply, without dogs, the agricultural revolution wouldn’t have happened. From this more settled way of life, 14,000 years ago, civilization developed, and the rest is, quite frankly, history…

40 Animals that Changed History
Cat from the Peterborough Psalter and Bestiary, England, c.1300. Wikimedia Commons

17. Likewise, 10,000 years ago cats helped the development of agriculture

Alongside their frequent canine antagonists, domesticated cats also made a significant contribution to human history. Their primary use came from arable farmers. Whilst dogs proved really good at guarding settlements and chasing off predators, they weren’t so effective against rodents. Enter the cat, quite literally: DNA evidence shows cats lived alongside humans without being domesticated for thousands of years. They first saw off the greedy rodents that ate crops 10,000 years ago, before gradually becoming domesticated. Without cats, keeping harvested crops would have been near-impossible, and the world would look very different indeed.

40 Animals that Changed History
US postage stamp depicting a bison hunt, 1898. Wikimedia Commons

16. The American Bison helped European settlers to colonize North America

Long before the arrival of European settlers, the American Bison made up an important part of the Native American diet. When the settlers arrived, Bison steak was once again on the menu, and helped fuel the settlers’ exploration. The tracks they’d used for thousands of years scarred the Great Plains, and gave Europeans ready-made highways to use. Many later became railroad tracks, as the enormous country took its modern form. On a more sinister note, the US government in the 19th century encouraged Bison hunting for sport to cut off a major part of the Native American diet.

40 Animals that Changed History
A fur trader, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, 1890s. Wikimedia Commons

15. The market for beaver skins saw Native American tribes wiped out by war and disease in the 18th century

Through the High Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, Europeans hunted beavers for fur and castoreum, making them near-extinct. However, when they began to colonize North America, they found beavers in abundance. Soon Britain and France became fierce rivals in the lucrative beaver-skin trade. Skins fetched high prices back in Europe. Native Americans had killed beavers for fur and meat for centuries, and thus came into conflict with the immigrants. Some Native Americans entered into the trade, but contact with Europeans came at a high price. As well as spreading disease, Europeans also mercilessly slaughtered tribes interfering with their trade.

40 Animals that Changed History
Smoky the Yorkshire Terrier, a most unlikely hero, photographed in 1944. Blogspot

14. Smoky the Yorkshire Terrier helped build a crucial US Air Force base in World War II

In February 1944, American soldiers stationed in Papua New Guinea found a tiny Yorkshire Terrier whimpering in an abandoned foxhole. Naming her Smoky, the enamored soldiers adopted the tiny dog. Smoky wound up accompanying Corporal William A. Wynne for the rest of World War II. Her finest hour came when Wynne’s squadron moved to the Philippines. When a telegraph wire needed to be installed in a narrow, 21-meter pipe at Luzon airbase, Smoky saved the day. Attached to a wire, Smoky ran the length of the pipe. This ensured the strategically-vital air base remained safe and operational.

40 Animals that Changed History
The Death of Cleopatra painted by Guido Cagnacci, Italy, c.1659. Wikimedia Commons

13. Cleopatra, the ruler of Egypt, died after being bitten by a snake, and the country became a Roman Province

Cleopatra (c.69-30BC) became co-ruler of Egypt when her father died. With support from her lover, Julius Caesar, she deposed her brother, Ptolemy XIII, who’d forced Cleopatra into exile. When Brutus murdered Caesar in 44BC, Cleopatra allied herself with the general, Mark Antony, and they fell in love. Their relationship, and Antony’s territorial concessions to Cleopatra, didn’t go down well in Rome. Roman forces defeated their combined army, and both committed suicide. According to Classical writers, Cleopatra killed herself by letting an asp bite her. With the snake’s bite, Egypt ceased to be independent and became a Roman Province.

40 Animals that Changed History
Harriet the Galapagos tortoise, who died in 2006 aged around 175, is thought to have once belonged to Charles Darwin. Wikimedia Commons

12. Studying Galapagos Tortoises and mockingbirds led Charles Darwin to come up with the theory of evolution in the 1830s

In 1831, a 22-year-old naturalist named Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle on a long voyage circumnavigating the world. Darwin collected many specimens during the nearly 5-year expedition, including tortoises and mockingbirds from the Galapagos Islands. He noticed slight variations in specimens from different islands, but everyone told him they were different species. But just six months after returning to England, Darwin looked at the specimens again. He began to wonder whether ‘one species does change into another’. Eventually, this thought turned into the full-blown theory of evolution. The Galapagos tortoises and mockingbirds changed how we understand the world forever.

40 Animals that Changed History
Romantic ruins of abandoned crofts such as this one are all that remain of many farming communities in Scotland after the Highland Clearances. Urban Ghosts Media

11. The Highland Clearances were caused by sheep

Between the mid-18th and mid-19th century, thousands of Scottish people were forced from their ancestral homes by heartless aristocrats. Some resisted: officials burned their homes or physically chased them with vicious dogs. Many fled to America; most who stayed on their new, infertile lands starved to death. So why did this disgraceful episode happen? Simple: sheep. After the Agricultural Revolution, small, individual farms no longer had economic value. The new way saw vast areas of land dedicated to raising huge flocks of sheep for their wool. Effectively, sheep had more rights than people in the eyes of greedy landowners.

40 Animals that Changed History
The Maneaters of Tsavo on display in the Smithsonian Institute. Wikimedia Commons

10. In 1899, man-eating lions stopped the construction of a railway in Kenya

Between March and December 1898, work on the Kenya-Uganda Railway ground to a shuddering halt. Workers, most from very poor families, simply downed tools and went home. The British Parliament even discussed the issue. The British Empire had been halted in its tracks… by two lions. The pair, known as the Maneaters of Tsavo, killed around 28 workers in 1898. After numerous attempts to kill them failed, workers began to suspect the lions were, in fact, demons, and fled. Operations resumed only when the engineer in charge of the railway bridge across the Tsavo River finally managed to kill them.

40 Animals that Changed History
Robert de Vere fleeing Radcot Bridge, France, c.1475. Wikimedia Commons

9. In 1392, a wild boar killed the widely-loathed Robert de Vere, Duke of Ireland

King Richard II’s favorite, Robert de Vere, backed the wrong horse. He loyally attempted (and failed) to defeat Richard’s enemies, a group of nobles who dominated the English government. In 1387, after defeat at Radcot Bridge, he fled to the continent, where a wild boar killed him near Louvain. This had dire consequences for Richard. Robert’s death left him completely at the mercy of the aptly-named Merciless Parliament. Parliament curtailed Richard’s power, and relentlessly bullied him. His reign never recovered. After being deposed as king by Henry Bolingbroke he starved to death while imprisoned at Pontefract Castle in 1400.

40 Animals that Changed History
G.I. Joe receives the Dickin Medal for gallantry at the Tower of London, 1946. MentalFloss

8. G.I. Joe, a pigeon, saved 1,000 soldiers from friendly fire in World War II

G.I. Joe, the pigeon received the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross, with good reason. In 1943, he managed to relay a message to save an entire village and occupying troops. British soldiers had just seized Calvi Vecchia from the Germans, but a prearranged air strike was imminent. Joe flew 20 miles in 20 minutes to pass on the message to abort, seconds before the bombers took flight. Joe’s speed saved the lives of around 1,000 people. Furthermore, the air strike would have handed Calvi Vecchia right back to the retreating German army. Well done, G.I. Joe!

40 Animals that Changed History
Echo (left) and her family. Pinterest

7. Echo the elephant became a celebrity in the late 20th century, and her story has protected elephants ever since

Like David Greybeard, Echo the elephant transformed how we view her species. Scientists began studying Echo, an African Bush Elephant (the largest living land mammal), in 1973. They studied Echo for the next 33 years, garnering pioneering insights into elephant behavior. Echo’s most startling contribution to history, however, came from her celebrity. Many documentary crews filmed her with the herd she led, and altered permanently how ordinary people viewed elephants. Echo’s celebrity gave crucial momentum to the elephant conservation movement. Unwittingly, Echo’s life secured the future of her species in Africa and improved the welfare of captive elephants.

40 Animals that Changed History
Why on earth would anyone eat lampreys?! Britannica

6. King Henry I of England died after eating ‘a surfeit of Lampreys’, causing a civil war

After Henry I’s male heir died in 1120, he spent many years trying to have another. When success looked increasingly unlikely, he made the controversial move of naming his daughter, Matilda, as his heir. He got all his barons to swear loyalty to her and thought the matter settled. In November 1135, Henry followed a day’s hunting with a hearty dinner. But after gorging himself on lampreys, an eel-like fish, he died. The official cause of death: ‘a surfeit of lampreys’. Perhaps inevitably, many barons broke their promise to support Matilda, and a long and brutal civil war erupted.

40 Animals that Changed History
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, France, 1801. Wikimedia Commons

5. A Newfoundland dog saved Napoleon from drowning in 1815

In 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, was in exile on Elba, off the coast of Italy. He’d been sent there in 1814 as part of the Treaty of Fontainbleau, brokered with Revolutionary France’s many enemies. But he couldn’t stay away from France for long, and escaped Elba within a year. Sailing over rough seas on the Inconstant, Napoleon fell overboard. Luckily for him, a Newfoundland dog jumped in after him, and saved his life. The dog’s intervention meant Napoleon seized control of France once more, albeit for a brief few months. Defeat at Waterloo that June forced his abdication.

40 Animals that Changed History
Fidel Castro with one of the handy doves, 1959. IB Times

4. Two doves helped Fidel Castro consolidate power in 1959

The bloody Cuban revolution ended early on New Year’s Day 1959. A week later, the revolutionaries’ leader, Fidel Castro, made his first speech in Havana. He faced the hard task of inspiring Cubans weary after years of civil war. Just as he promised to solve all of Cuba’s problems without shedding a drop of blood, a miracle happened. Two white doves, international symbols of peace, landed on him and the podium! To superstitious Cubans, this seemed a divine sign. Historians are skeptical about how ‘accidental’ this really was. Either way, Castro became Prime Minister soon afterward, and led Cuba until 2008.

40 Animals that Changed History
The Uffington White Horse, a chalk figure dating to between 1740 and 210 BC. National Trust

3. The domestication of the horse led to the spread of civilization

Humans first domesticated the horse 5,000 years ago on the Russian Steppes. Things have never been the same. The speed and strength of the horse effectively shrunk the world, making long journeys possible. Produce could be carried long distances and sold. Increased mobility brought different peoples into contact, and with this came war and expansion. Culture spread this way, and riding horses itself became a cultural activity. Hunting and herding became far easier on a horse’s back. Although we have cheaper and more efficient transport today, where would we be without 5,000 years of horsepower?

40 Animals that Changed History
King Philip of France is killed by a pig, Paris, c.1332-1350. British Library

2. A pig killed King Philip of France, and his successor launched the disastrous Second Crusade

King Philip (1116-31) ruled France with his father, Louis the Fat (c.1081-1137). Like many teenagers, he refused to listen to his dad, or anyone else, really. One day, as he rode his horse along the River Seine in Paris, a little black pig ran out from a dung heap. Philip’s horse tripped over it and crashed to the ground. Philip hit his head, and never regained consciousness. Louis VII succeeded Philip and helped launch the Second Crusade, in which many thousands of people died horribly. If only that ruddy pig had stayed put in the dung heap…

40 Animals that Changed History
Asian Honey Bees swarm around a tree. DAF

1. The Asian Honey Bee helped the Vietcong fight off the US invasion in the Vietnam War

The Asian Honey Bee is the stuff of nightmares. Measuring up to 2cm long, they are notoriously aggressive. As well as having a painful sting, they can also cause bowel gangrene and even death. During the Vietnam War, US soldiers found them a menace that only compounded the horrific conditions in the jungle. Bee attacks were so common rumors spread that the Vietcong were moving hives to routes taken by US infantry. Whether they did or not, the bees in their own way helped to fight the war, lowering US morale and making life even tougher for the beleaguered troops.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Chaline, Eric. Fifty Animals That Changed the Course of History. Richmond, ON: Firefly, 2011.

Coren, Stanley. The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events. New York: Free Press, 2002.

Hambler, Clive. Conservation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Lee, Mackenzi. The History of the World in Fifty Dogs. New York: Abrams Image, 2019.

Lemish, Michael G. War Dogs: Canines in Combat. London: Brassey’s, 1996.

Lockwood, Jeffrey A. Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Roberts, Alice M. Tamed: Ten Species that Changed our World. London: Hutchinson, 2017.