“When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out. This is the case whether the agent drops from the sky in a fiery streak or drives to work in a Honda.”
Nearly half of all the world’s species could be extinct by the end of the century, and if you want to know why, take a look in the mirror. Author Elizabeth Kolbert calls this The Sixth Extinction. The last great extinction took place about 65 million years ago when an asteroid slammed into the planet and took out all the dinosaurs.
This time, we’re the asteroid.
Since our inceptions, Kolbert writes, humans have been the only creatures capable of drastically changing the planet. We built ships to travel across oceans. We dug deep into the ground for oil. We eradicated species because they were a threat, or because they were food, because they were too trusting and because we were bored. That’s the sad underbelly of humanity. We taken the things that make us great- our creativity and drive and ability to solve complicated problems-and used them to wipe out whole species. We evolved beautifully, and it looks like other species just can’t keep up.
Kolbert takes us around the world to learn about the species that are wiped out, or barely hanging on. A lot of the damage came from travel. As an example, when brown tree snakes ended up in Guam, probably as stowaways on a ship, they tore through the island, devouring birds and bats that had never evolved to avoid such a predator. Once it made its way to Hawaii, the wolf snail eradicated about 700 of the islands native snails. Coral reefs and all the animals that live there, are in danger too, thanks to carbon dioxide emissions. In one of the book’s creepier chapters, Kolbert explores a fungus that’s killing off thousands of bats a year while they hibernate. It’s called “White Nose Syndrome” and people who study bats are sadly getting accustomed to exploring caves carpeted with dead bats.
The book isn’t all depressing. Kolbert spends a lot of time talking to the dedicated scientists determined to keep species alive no matter what it takes. And sometimes it takes a lot. In the book’s last chapter, we’re introduced to Kinohi- one of about 100 of the last Hawaiian crows in existence. Scientists kept him in a breeding facility, but the stubborn little bastard straight up refused to mate. Scientists theorized it was because Kinohi considered himself more human than bird thanks to his years in captivity. So they moved him to a new zoo where it became one reproductive physiologist’s job to…stroke him and get his genetic material. If and when he provided it, she would then rush it back to Maui to knock up a female bird. That’s how much scientists are working to save even one species.
But ultimately, these animals won’t be saved solely through the work of these amazing scientists. It has to be us, living in a way that’s more environmentally conscious before it’s too late.
*If you find this subject interesting, I would also recommend the “Galapagos” episode of the RadioLab podcast.