“We are entering the sixth mass extinction event.” This statement was proposed by Duke University around a year ago and was recently seconded by three universities in the USA (Stanford, Berkeley and Princeton). Scary stuff! What does this mean? Considering the last mass extinction event took place 65 million years ago, implications of a mass extinction event aren’t quite fresh in the human mindset. Are we as doomed as the dinosaurs?
65 million years ago the dinosaurs were wiped out, an event which was probably due to a meteor strike. So what is happening now? As recently reported in a BBC article, since 1990 almost 400 vertebrate species have disappeared. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports 50 species every year edging closer to extinction – currently a staggering 41% of amphibians and a quarter of mammals are on the verge of disappearing. This seems a stark truth we must face. Some might say, “oh come on, species have been going extinct all the time”, reasoning that when some go extinct, others pop up in a sort of natural turnover. Well, it’s good to be sceptical – but this time the argument fails. The studies from the universities mentioned above state that the extinction rate is between 100 to 1000 times faster than the background extinction rate (the aforementioned ‘turnover’). The most recent study says that the luxury we have of bee pollination might be gone within the next three human generations. And as Einstein said “If the bees disappeared off the face of the Earth, Man would only have four years left to live”. Now you can panic. OK, this is a joke, keep calm and read on….
So what’s the solution? Let’s evaluate the options. Two main conservation strategies have been focused on – either a species-based approach or function-based approach. The species-based approach involves focusing on conservation of species that are endangered or are directly facing extinction. The function-based approach, on the other hand, focuses on preserving ecosystem services like pollination – thus preserving all species involved in the ecosystem. Both ways have their advantages and disadvantages – let’s take a look at these.
The species-based approach can, for example, preserve so-called umbrella species – the species whose preservation can save many other species due to connections through the ecosystem they live in (e.g. through the food chain), or the fact they share the same habitat. For example, protecting the Northern Spotted owl also protects molluscs and salamanders within the habitat of Northern California. Nevertheless a key disadvantage of species-focused conservation is that sometimes sparse biological knowledge combined with rather random financial injections leads to protection of animals that yes, are endangered, but are chosen simply because they are cute and so the general public is more likely to donate money for their conservation. Even though there is literally no hope for them – which is a shame.
This may seem harsh, but let’s take the example of the conservation of Florida Panthers. The destruction of their natural habitat and exposure to chemical pollution caused reproductive impairments and a commensurate decrease in population size. This led to a decrease in genetic diversity. Conservation of this species by many scientists has been considered equivalent to flushing money down the toilet, because the genetic pool is very unlikely to be restored to a point that makes survival of this species sustainable. If we choose to preserve species just because we feel like hugging them, I suggest the next candidate should be Opisthoteuthis adorabilis, a recently discovered species of flapjack octopus. As the name suggests, it’s just the cutest thing ever. Just look into those cute little eyes. Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute workers are aiming to learn more about this new species, of which just 12 specimens have been observed so far.
Putting jokes aside, it’s very difficult to prioritise which species are ‘more important’ than others. That’s why some organisations prefer the function-based approach. Services preserved are those that yield environmental benefits for human life – such as pollination, environmental irrigation, water filtration, absorption of carbon dioxide or heavy metals etc. As the definition suggests, this is a very economic and anthropocentric view of which species should be allowed to exist. The view “you can live because you serve me and I can eat you” renders many species redundant, because various different species perform the same environmental function. The risk of that is that this species redundancy could well be temporary, a fact we are frequently oblivious to. A study on different species of dung beetles showed that one species is enough to dispose of dung, thus fulfil their amazing role in an agricultural context. But when the environment is perturbed the species that were initially considered unnecessary become very important – hence one species helps the others to efficiently perform a key environmental function. This implies that cherry-picking one species essentially to serve a function could be considered a short-sighted tactic.
So what’s the general conclusion? As a massive sceptic of all the different conservation approaches and general pessimist I ought to say the situation is bad, we are all doomed, most approaches are terrible and the others are worse*. But in order to avoid making you all cry, I think I need to modify this statement slightly and say every single effort counts – maybe one day through combination of those different methods we will find a golden ticket out of this mess. We have to keep in mind that this is not the first time the Earth is undergoing a mass extinction event. And each time there has been recovery in one way or another, as seen from the fluctuation of number of families on this graph.
Generally speaking, I will grind my pessimistic view into the dust and encourage everyone to get involved with conservation efforts, whether they be local initiatives (easy to find online if you consult Guru Google) or donating to a larger-scale reputable charity. And no, you can’t get a flapjack octopus for a pet. Sorry guys. Life’s tough.
* A shining ray of sunshine in Sweden!