Category Archives: Mammals

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.


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.

Bobcats & Feral Cats, Part 1

Less than a week into moving into my new place, I saw a orange and white cat lunge and emerge with a flopping feathered mass in its mouth. Starlings flocked over to see what the commotion was. While I’m not particularly heart-broken about the loss of a starling–beautiful birds but devastating invaders–I am livid about seeing domestic cats outside.

In this spirit, I finally forced myself to listen to a Reveal podcast. I had to force myself not  because Reveal is a bad podcast, but because the feral cat situation pisses me off and the people who prefer ecological devastation to eliminating the feral cat population piss me off even more.

I will have to see if my opinions are revised after listening to second half of the podcast. For the first half, they focus on bobcat trapping. I didn’t even know that was a thing, being an ignorant East Coaster. The main issue for the trapping is the cruelty of the traps, though I take personal issue with the guise of ‘population control,’ which was summed up by a guy in power stating that they believe there are too many bobcats. No evidence or data to back up the claim that this native predator is overpopulated.

The ethics of sustainable trapping and hunting is a topic I will delve into for future work; for now it will have to suffice that the wildlife trade is largely unsustainable and insanely profitable across the globe.

Current bobcat population estimates are at one million, which is “quite large” in the words of National Geographic.

What would they say about the population of invasive, destructive feral cats then? Ranging from estimates of 60 million to over 80 million, feral cats wreak ecological havoc. This in a world already brimming with windows, roads, drought, and the specter of climate change.



Harbor Seals + Oodles of Birds

There’s a wealth of wildlife creeping and crawling and flapping and swimming and bobbing and sunning right under our noises.

We usually miss it, buried in cellphones or power walking around slow strollers or just noticing the pigeons.

The headliners were harbor seals, but for me the scene-stealers were the birds (loons in winter plumage! bubble-gum pink bills on long-tailed ducks! jumbo-size gulls! the adorable buffleheads! punk-rock mergansers! many more but I didn’t take notes!)

Thanks NYC Audubon for an awesome water ride around the harbor and opening my eyes to the awesome wildlife in the midst of our metropolis.


Photo by author, Hoffman Island, New York, January 2016. Formerly used for quarantine, now home to birds and winter harbor seals.

Review of War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz

War of the Whales

War of the Whales

(Check out that link, if only to hear the echoing sonar)

I’ve been on a bit of a book kick lately and still have a pile waiting for me. I definitely recommend this one on whales, the Navy, and the legal system all the way up to the Supreme Court. Although, if your views run anything akin to mine, you will need to find a sturdy wall to bang your head against at multiple points.

Meticulously researched for 6 years, this book weaves together complex and competing national security, environmental, and legal concepts. It illuminates impacts of human activity that are not often considered. Human activity has permeated everywhere. Even the deep ocean is haunted by our sounds.

Exhibit One: “Of the 200 [marine mammals in 1999] that stranded alive [on U.S. shorelines], some were euthanized on the beach by Fisheries officials. Most of the others soon died of exposure to the elements, or suffocated when their bodies collapsed under their own weight, or drowned when the high tide washed over their blowholes. Only five marine mammals that stranded alive that year were actually rescued from the beach and returned to the ocean.” (pg. 70).

Exhibit Two: “The Marine Mammal Protection Act had been on the books for almost 20 years, but the Navy had never applied for a permit–as the law mandated–for any experiment or exercise that might ‘injure or harass’ any marine mammals.” (pg. 162) Essentially, underwater sonar activities went unregulated until the mass stranding in 2000 set activists in motion.

Exhibit Three:  “[A key lawyer] Reynolds wondered if saving the whales was simply a grandiose fantasy. Having barely escaped commercial whaling, were the survivors doomed to be overrun by the ceaseless naval arms race after more and more powerful acoustic weapons? Would judges and politicians continue to defer to admirals in their ‘balance of hardships’ calculations, until there were no more whales left to save?” (pg. 344-345)


American Cetacean Society

Cuvier’s Beaked Whales

Washington Post Book Review