Category Archives: Extinct

Review of the Sixth Extinction, Part 2

And I’m back with a second part to my thoughts on the Sixth Extinction, because the book has just stuck in my craw. I’m still mulling it over.

Extinctions seem to be quiet. Most go unnoticed. The end might be violent (see:  great auk) or unassuming in the wild (see:  baiji freshwater dolphin) but it is the most grievous sort of death. Humans take some comfort that they have passed something on to future generations of their ilk when they die; no such succor can be had for extinct species.

According to Dr. Anthony Barnosky, about 900 species’ extinction can be directly attributed to human cases over the last century, and around 20,000 species now are known to be at risk. The even more terrible news is that humans have killed off half of all wildlife in the last 40 years. (HHMI, 2015)

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Biodiversity in the Age of Humans, HHMI 2015.

We don’t even seem to be aware of the magnitude our actions can have–seven billion is a jumbo number to try to visualize and connect down to my own measly life.

And yet, even at much lower numbers, we have been having an outsize impact for thousands of years.

As Kolbert incisively noted:  “When Alroy [a paleobiologist] ran the [extinction] simulations for North America, he found that even a very small initial population of humans—a hundred or so individuals—could, of the course of a millennium or two, multiply sufficiently to account for pretty much all of the extinctions in the [fossil] record…if every band of ten hunters killed off just one diprotodon a year, within about seven hundred years, every diprotodon [large marsupial] within several hundred miles would have been gone…From an earth history perspective, several hundred years or even several thousand is practically no time at all…For the people involved in it, the decline of the megafauna would have been so slow as to be imperceptible…Alroy described it as ‘geologically instantaneous ecological catastrophe too gradual to be perceived by the people who unleashed it.’ ” (233-234)

We can perceive what we are currently unleashing, so at least we aren’t in the dark anymore. While there are a lot of players involved in the extinction game, spread all over the world, there are definitely things that can be done in our backyards.

And, for me, that’s the challenge–to not let this be such a hulking, intimidating beast of a task that I don’t even try beyond the shallowest of actions. Those actions matter, but they are not nearly enough. I will be working through different steps I can take locally to shore up all wildlife–because even species that are common are likely struggling.

Review of The Sixth Extinction

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. This cliche that came to mind while reading that the Javan rhino, once widespread in Southeast Asia, is down to “less than fifty individuals left, all in a single Javanese reserve” (Kolbert 2014, p. 222). The colossal creatures remaining here are in trouble–bears, big cats, elephants, rhinos. I had the privilege of hearing forest elephants once while trekking in the rainforest, which the book also notes have lost an estimated 60% of their population. Pick a large species, and it is likely doing poorly.

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H. Slegel, engraving of Javan rhinoceros, 1872.

This is scary. Species are losing resiliency, hammered by threats on all sides. You can’t save a population that is in a single reserve; one or two random events and they could be wiped out. Or they could just fade away, with no new migrants from other areas coming in. This cascade of extinctions has been going on since humans began pulsing out of Eastern Africa. To put geologic terms in perspective, it’s like blinking and seeing that someone took half of the stuff in your house while also finding that the house is tilting and much of the remaining stuff is crashing down.

The unflinching The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert reminded me of a college lecture. The anthropology professor was delineating what made humans unique among animals:  Language–he said that other animals communicate and can learn new words; Tools–other animals (crows, chimps at least) use them; Fire–use of fire and the ability to cook food was the distinguishing feature.

There is another distinguishing feature of humans–willful destruction. We knowingly destroy habitats, which means that animals starve to death, die from disease, or are forced to perish while migrating across hostile terrain. We knowingly “salt, pluck, and deep fry [the great auks] into oblivion”(62), “cut into and cut off” wild places (172), and create conditions for a “steady degradation in diversity over time” (179).

There might even be enough of a lag that it will take a while to see the true extinction debt, which is difference between the number of species doomed by an environmental change and the number that have actually vanished. How likely are Kirtland’s warbler, the whooping crane, the Devil’s pupfish, the Florida panther, and even the little brown bat to make a self-sustaining comeback?

The truly terrifying extension of this argument is: If the last mass extinction was 65 million years ago, and there have been 5 major ones over the last 500 million years, we are ahead of the average by about 45 million years. What happens if we wipe out all of this intricate, marvelous, irreplaceable and then there’s another shock to the system? Can we really rule out making this planet uninhabitable?

Kolbert pulls no punches:  “Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did” (p.235) and “It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.” (266)

The next question is what to do about it, which the book doesn’t really address. On the other hand, I prefer that to anodyne statements about recycling and reducing waste. Those things are easy; my guess is that the real change will come with things that are difficult.

A Selection of Quotations by E.O. Wilson

I know I’m late to the party. I plan on making up for years of not reading these works immediately.

Some of the many spot-on quotations from E.O. Wilson’s Diversity of Life (2010):

Extinction:

“[Hawaiian] honeycreepers disappeared as vanished species usually do, not in a dramatic catacylsm but unnoticed” (97)

“The committment must be much deeper–to let no species knowingly die, to take all reasonable action to protect every species and race in perpetuity…Insofar as biodiversity is deemed an irreplaceable public resource, its protection should be bound into legal canon.” (342)

“What is urgently needed is knowledge and a practical ethic based on a time scale longer than we are accustomed to apply.” (312)

“By the time we find out, however, it might be too late. One planet, one experiment.” (182)

Insects

“So important are insects and other land-dwelling arthropods that if all were to disappear, humanity could probably not last more than a few months. Most of the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals would crash into extinction about the same time. Next would go the bulk of the flowering plants and with them the physical structure of most forests and other terrestrial habitats of the world. The land surface would literally rot. As dead vegetation piled up and dried out, closing the channels of the nutrient cycles, other complex forms of vegetation would die off, and with them all but a few remnants of the land vertebrates.” (133)

Valuing Ecosystems

“Each ecosystem has intrinsic value. Just as a country treasures its finite historical episodes, classic books, works of art, and other measures of national greatness, it should learn to treasure its unique and finite ecosystems, resonant to a sense of time and place.” (158)

“Beyond commodity value, economists fall short.” (305)

“If a price can be put on something, that something can be devalued, sold, and discarded.” (348)

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Dead horseshoe crabs. Photo by author, 2016.

A Tribute to the Dodo

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Photo by author of dodo replica at AMNH, March 2016.

In the midst of an enthralling exhibit about the evolutionary pathways that led to birds at the American Museum of Natural History, there was a tribute to the much-maligned dodo.

The placard was simply titled, “Not dumb.” After the species name, they continued, “This model depicts a bird, the Dodo, whose name has entered the popular culture as a symbol of stupidity. But many birds are intelligent, as–it seems–were many non-bird dinosaurs. Dodos were ill-equipped to escape introduced predators, but that doesn’t equal stupidity…Humans hunted dodos to extinction within about 90 years after the first Dutch ship made landfall [in Mauritius].” (American Museum of Natural History, Dinosaurs among Us exhibit, March 2016)

Wise words from a museum that also houses a letter from Teddy Roosevelt lamenting the loss of the passenger and the Carolina parakeet–two species that are not accused of being dumb but who were shoved into the black hole of extinction nonetheless.

It was a remarkable exhibit, and I hope the reproaching gaze of the dodo is noted by most visitors. Blaming a species for its own demise is a twisted way to rationalize all of the destruction engendered by human hands.

Ducks in the Hudson

This winter has been terrific for seeing all sorts of ducks in the Hudson Bay–today I saw a red-throated loon (what a misnomer for winter identification), two mergansers, a bobbing male bufflehead about 20 feet from shore, and a flock of Brant geese. I can never get enough of watching their miniature parabolas upward before disappearing beneath the water.

This picture is of a different duck, the Labrador Duck, extinct from the New Jersey area since the late 1800’s. Presumably it also spent the winters bobbing along the coastline in between dives for mollusks.

Hopefully the diving and dabbling ducks we have now won’t be artistically posed in a display for their curtain call.

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Three Labrador ducks, front one presumably in breeding plumage, at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by author, 2016.

Return from the Abyss…

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again…who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.” (Teddy Roosevelt)

It would be a signature achievement to revive, or at least come very close in genetic terms, the Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii). As the New York Times describes, scientists found close genetic matches to the Pinta Island tortoises and hope to utilize a breeding program to create the closest probable match to the original species.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it is a marvel that we can use DNA analysis and managed breeding programs to repair some of the harm we do through extinction. This program is using living animals, not trying to re-establish a species from stored DNA, like some of the rumors of creating a mammoth, which seems gimmicky to me. More like it’s the thrill of the challenge, which would be fine if there weren’t living beings unwittingly involved.

On the other hand, we should not feel the catastrophic error of human-caused extinction can just be undone by some plucky scientists and a dash of DNA. Better to put our energies into protecting the diversity of life that we still have. Preserving the remaining species and building ecosystem resilience would be the ultimate “triumph of high achievement.”

Pondering conservation

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Photo Credit:  Author,  Belize, 2012

Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.” ~E.O.Wilson

I agree with the sentiment, and yet believe that I would likely burn the painting if I was hungry enough. Conservation has to offer solutions that take into account the reality of poverty while also combating the reality of over-consumption and unsustainable, unethical supply chains.

Conservation is often viewed as punitive, but it lends itself to adding value. I would argue that when you broaden the time frame and enlarge the scale, it is inherently additive to humans. For example, it will certainly benefit all humans writ large to have functioning, large-scale rainforests in the tropics. Beauty and ideals aside, there is a quantifiable benefit of a rainforest in terms of carbon storage, erosion control, and many other ecosystem services.

The movie Racing Extinction explores ways to make conservation lift communities up, and the Cheetah Conservation Fund engages in community-based conservation practices that improve both human life and wildlife.


 

Today I was having a conversation with a professional who works in the environmental fields. When I explained my interest in the work, I noted that when I pay attention to the issues, I am terrified.

Her reply:  You should be terrified.

Yet I also find many reasons for hope when I pay attention and when I engage.

In the words of Dr. Stuart Pimm (quoted in the above Racing Extinction link), “…the variety of life on Earth is beautiful. And we can actually do something about saving it.”

In the process, we would save ourselves.