The Sixth Extinction

Though four years after the fact, it still came as breaking news to yours, truly to learn that the Pyreanean ibex has already gone extinct twice.  The first, last Pyrenean ibex, a female nicknamed Celia, was found dead in northern Spain on Jan. 6, 2000, the species apparently undone by a falling tree, which is a little hard to picture.  In a fortunate coincidence, scientists were on hand to harvest skin cells from the ear and preserve them in liquid nitrogen.  In 2009 an ibex was cloned, making it the first species to become “unextinct.”  The clone lasted only seven minutes before expiring with lung defects, similar to the issues cloners have run into with sheep.  But a newly spiky complication vis-à-vis cloning, at least for yrs., truly.  Hard in such a moment of mental recoiling to wonder if there might be any preferable remedies to such a brutal (high-minded) science.  Like, perhaps, protecting at least a few more of these species and subspecies from the apocalyptic horror that passes for wilderness in the 21st Century?

Extinct ibex is resurrected by cloning

(It is pertinent here to note Lance Morrow’s wisdom that: ‘a rattlesnake loose in the living room tends to end all discussion of human rights,’ but few of the critters currently cowering beneath the quickly descending Sword of Damocles appear to be posing any direct threats to humankind.)

Even an ardent optimist would be forced to conclude that some doomed creatures among the Critically Endangered are beyond our powers, like the pygmy three-toed sloth, which ranks as not just the smallest, but also the slowest among the notoriously unfleet sloth family, and, as could come as little surprise, has been Critically Endangered for some time.  For them, it might be said that it was a good run.

The saola, more familiarly and ominously referred to as the Asian unicorn, provides a different cautionary (maybe hopeful) tale, with only four confirmed sightings since its remarkably recent discovery in 1992.  One might feel cheered to learn that there’s still some undiscovered terrestrial wilderness out there, or one might feel like it must have been a little lonely for those few saola the ancient hunters missed.

saola

These might factor among the sixth extinction’s expected entries.  But there are more forthcoming…

Cherry-picked from the Americas: The vaquita, the hirola, Tarzan’s Chameleon, the Angel Shark, the Dusky Gopher frog, Franklin’s Bumble Bee, Nelson’s Small-eared Shrew, the Cuban Greater Funnel-Eared Bat, the Jamaican Iguana, the Galapagos Damsel Fish, the Northern Bald Ibis, the Geometric Tortoise, and the Table Mountain Ghost Frog!

The common four-toed terrapin, the peacock parachute spider, and the poorly named Great Indian Bustard from the subcontinent.  Another common whose adjective no longer suits used to be found in the waters north of Australia, the common sawfish (or carpenter shark).

Elsewhere: the Sumatran and Javan Rhinos! The Sakhalin Taiman, the Amsterdam Island Albatross, the Singapore Freshwater Crab, the white-bellied heron, the spoonbill sandpiper, they’re even exterminating their pests in Japan—the Okinawa Spiny Rat.

So what’s of interest here besides some morbid cataloging, and a somewhat mitigating indulgence in a few spectacular images of creatures no longer to be glimpsed?  Yours, truly might mention Przewalski’s horse (the Mongolian wild horse) and propose a link between the loss of the horse and the waning of the largest nomadic culture left on the globe, and that whether cause or effect, their giving way to unregulated mining saps a little richness out of the world.  Or observe that the wild yam is rapidly nearing extinction, and recognize that it could not possibly be taken as a good sign that we’re terminating our tubers, and that there is a very human stake in all this.

Of course, the sixth extinction explicitly implies the existence of five previous mass extinctions in Earth’s history.  What’s noteworthy about the current one is that it has a ‘biotic, rather than physical effect.‘  Which means that we’re doing it, and because we’re organisms, it falls into a different category.  Big whoopee, one might be tempted to think, that this apocalypse fits into a different category, before remembering that biotic effects could potentially be considered less deterministic than the world-blows-up extinction stories from the dim past.  The question remains, can we change the course we’ve been marching down since we started migrating around the globe more than 100,000 years ago (Humans, the first invasive species)?  Or is this an unresolvable Us vs. Them?  Or, even more terrifying, as some have posited, is this an unresolvable Us. vs. Us?

In the meantime, maybe there’s a way to monetize the whole sad story: extinct bird mobiles of ibis, shrew, Bustard and albatross (let your child see in their imagination what they never will in the world); stuffed markhor and rhino and Asian unicorns.

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