The threat of extinction


If humankind doesn’t soon learn to live in harmony with itself and nature, then life on planet Earth will become drastically different in the not so distant future. This doomsday message is delivered so frequently by environmentalists that the fatigue of the warning tends to cause their audience to turn a deaf ear of indifference. However, hiding one’s head in the sand, as it were, does not make the problem go away.


Modern geologists believe that the activities of our species, Homo sapiens, during the past two centuries have altered the planet so dramatically that a new epoch has been created. It has been labeled the Anthropocene. Future stratigraphers - those who study rock strata or the distribution, deposition, and age of sedimentary rocks to discover what life was like before the time of man - will discover a sharp band in rock outcroppings that represents a mass extinction - much like the extinction event at the end of the Ordovician Period that is studied today. (Kobert, 2011).  This new band of rock will contain the remains of our modern society- one expansive landfill, as it were - along with the fossilized bones of animals that had gone extinct because of the activities of humankind.


There are numerous examples to indicate this is the direction of our future. Early indicators of this came in this country with the extinction of the Passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratonius) and the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinesis). Since that time, the list of extinct animals on this planet has grown at a remarkable rate – so much so, that the activities of modern humans have increased the extinction rate of the world’s species nearly 1,000 times that of the past as determined by fossil record. (Schindler, 2007)


Passenger pigeons once occurred in astronomical numbers during their existence at the time Europeans discovered America. They were considered to be the largest species population on Earth at that time. They had all disappeared from the wild by the early 1900s due to hunting and habitat destruction leaving only Martha (named after Martha Washington) the sole survivor of a magnificent species to live the remainder of her 29 years in captivity (Herman, 1948). She died at 1PM on September 1, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens (Greenway, 1967).


Equally appalling was the demise of the Carolina parakeet, the only psittacine bird native to eastern United States. The last of this species, “Incas,” died on February 21, 1918 -- four years after the death of “Martha,” the last Passenger pigeon in the same aviary at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens (Butler, 2005). Their extinction came primarily from destruction of their habitat with the clearing of the land for agriculture and the mass killing of birds to supply colorful feathers for the millinery trade.


During my tenure as a veterinarian for a Florida marine park, that State saw the extinction of one of its native species, the Dusky Seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens). It came with the death of “Orange Band,” who died in captivity on June 18, 1987 (Rising, 2005). The demise of “Orange Band’s” race began with the use of DDT to control mosquitoes in the birds’ home marshes on Merritt Island, Florida and along the St. John’s River. The birds that survived that onslaught faced habitat destruction when dikes were built to impound their marshes to create flooding also as a means of mosquito control. The marshes were later drained for highway construction. All this along with pollution was too much for the species.


Extinctions are not just confined to land animals. The Steller’s Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), Caribbean Monk seal (Monachus tropicalis), and Sea Mink (Mustela macrodon) were marine mammals whose extinctions were a direct result of human activities.


The Steller’s Sea Cow was the colossal cousin of the West Indian Manatee. An adult measured up to twenty-six feet from snout to tail and weighed more than a ton. It lived in the shallow cold coastal waters of islands in the Bering Sea. Only twenty seven years after being discovered by humankind, the animal had been hunted to extinction, the death of the last individual recorded in 1768 (Forsten and Youngman, 1982). The population of its closest living relative, the Dugong (Dugong dugon), had been facing its own extinction during modern times as a result of pollution, traumatic injury from encounters with watercraft, and the loss of habitat associated with human development in its coastal home waters -- much the same as the Florida manatee. 

       

At the time Columbus and his crew discovered the New World in 1494, the Caribbean Sea was teaming with Monk Seals. These docile trusting pinnipeds were easily approachable -- a characteristic that made them easy quarry for human hunters. As a result they were relentlessly slaughtered during the 17th and 18th centuries for food and pelts. By the beginning of the 1900s, finding a Caribbean Monk seal was a rare treat. The last confirmed sighting of the species was in 1952 on remote tiny coral islands between Jamaica and Honduras (Solow, A.R. 1993).


The Sea Mink, a large bushy tailed reddish-brown mink, lived in the coastal waters of eastern North America. It was hunted extensively by European fur traders. The last known specimen was taken at Campobello Island in 1894 (Campbell, 1988; Nowak, 1999).


Fish, too, are disappearing at an alarming rate. Slightly over two decades ago, the extinction of 3 genera, 27 species, and 13 subspecies of fishes in North America alone were documented during the previous 100 years. (Miller, William, and Williams, 1989) That extinction rate has likely accelerated as modern humans continue to go about their business unabated.  We are damaging the very ecosystems that our species also intimately relies upon for our own livelihood. (Schnider, 2007)


So, what can be done? Given the current pace of extinctions, it is important to develop practical conservation strategies before it is too late, that is to say, before so much damage to ecosystems has occurred that there is no turning back. Governments cannot or will not help. Their short sighted vision is preoccupied with commerce and financial problems having little to do with the common good. There are; however, private institutions whose visions are centered on protecting the future of the natural world. Two such groups are the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Nature Conservancy – both addressing the protection of the natural environment on a large scale. 


The WWF boasts of a membership of 1.2 million individuals in the United State alone. Globally, it has nearly 5 million members and projects in 100 countries. Likewise, the 1 million members (and growing) of the Nature Conservancy currently protect more than 119 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of river worldwide. They also have over 100 marine conservation projects. The goal of these organizations is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends and to leave a sustainable world for future generations.  If successful, perhaps they can turn the tide, as it were, and prevent the development of the Anthropocene epoch.


For this reason, ten percent of Rocky Mountain Gyotaku sales will be donated equally to the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy. It would be a sad day indeed, if the only evidence of the existence of a species of fish is by its photograph or gyotaku. 



References:


Campbell, R.R. 1988. Status of the sea mink, Mustela macrodon, in Canada. Canadian Field-Naturalist 102:304-306.


Forsten, A. and Youngman, P.M. 1982. Hydradamalis gigas. Mammalian Species. 165:1-3. American Society of Mammologists.


Greenway, J.C. 1967. Extinct and vanishing birds of the world, second edition, New York, Dover.


Herman, W.C. 1948. The last passenger pigeon. Auk 65(1):77-80.


Kobert, E. 2011. A new geologic epoch: The age of man. National Geographic, March 2011, pp 60-85.


Nowak, R.M. (ed.) 1999. Walkers Mammals of the World. Sixth edition. The John Hopkin s University Press, Baltimore and London.


Rising, J.D. 2005. Ecological and genetic diversity in the Seaside Sparrow. Birding September-October, pp 490-496.


Schindler, DE. 2007. Fish extinctions and ecosystem functioning in tropic ecosystems. PNSA 104(14):5707-5708.


Solow, A.R. 1993. Inferring extinction from sighting data. Ecology. 74(3):962-964.






Dusky Seaside sparrow

Steller’s Sea Cow

Carolina parakeet

Sea Mink

Passenger pigeon

Caribbean Monk seal

Ten percent of

Rocky Mountain Gyotaku 

sales will be donated

equally to the

World Wildlife Fund

and the

Nature Conservancy