Posted by: Kristen Hicks | May 20, 2010

Can one species cause mass extinctions?

We all know bee populations are decreasing by dangerous levels every year, the numbers of some of our most iconic large mammals, like tigers and polar bears, are dwindling and if you’ve ever enjoyed the taste of a bluefin tuna, you should hang on to that memory because it’s almost certainly not happening again.  And all of this is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg (yep, couldn’t let that pun slip by), there are a few endangered species stories that manage to stay pretty present in our consciousness and countless more that slip mostly under the public radar.

This NPR story marks the first time I’ve heard the influence of human behavior on the earth described as causing “mass extinctions”.  The term sounds like hyperbole, but in the context of a growing awareness of the many species that have disappeared in recent years or are dangerously close to dying out, it starts to sound chillingly accurate.

Just take this recent article from the reliably fantastic National Geographic magazine that just focuses on endangered species in Europe:

one of the endangered animals highlighted in this month's National Geographic

The Iberian Lynx

Here they have a photo gallery of animals throughout the world on the verge of extinction:

Anyone paying regular attention to news that relates to our natural world sees the stories everywhere and they’re increasingly troubling, but it’s often difficult to discuss these “mass extinctions” with the urgency they require with people who get most of their information from tv

Also endangered...and my favorite

Red Panda

news sources who are far more concerned with the token non-issues of any given moment (e.g. petty Congressional and Senatorial battles that never seem to get anywhere, the marital infidelities of celebrities, the sordid pasts of beauty queens).  It’s disturbing to me to be a part of society that’s so casual and flippant about the destruction of countless whole species.

Maybe I’m a fringe extremist, but I’m daily frustrated by how the issues that I think matter are drowned out by conversations that seem stuck in the petty dispute phase and ultimately aren’t even about anything that matters that much to begin with (I could give you a list, but that require a new post altogether), when something beautiful like the red panda might not make it to the end of my lifetime.

Update: An article in last month’s National Geographic, Lost Giants, looks at a theory some archaeologists and historians have considered based on fossil records in Australia that could be interpreted as suggesting that large mammals tend to disappear within a short period after encountering human beings for the first time.

It’s a troubling idea and one that’s firmly in the “theory” category, without any clear proof to back it up, just some possible evidence.  If it is true, it presents very troubling questions about the relationship between those things unique to us: language, complex civilization, consciousness; and the destruction we have a species have (maybe) wrought on much of the life around us.


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