Posts Tagged ‘extinction’

Martha In his first technical book, The Bird: Its Form and Function (1906), William Beebe wrote the following oft-quoted statement: “The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.” 

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the most popular Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in history: Martha. She was named after George Washington’s wife, and resided at Cincinnati Zoo until her death from old age at 1 PM, 1st of September 1914. The breeding attempts of the Zoo were in vain; and by 1910, Martha was the sole survivor of her kind. The last known wild bird was killed in Ohio in 1900. A reward of $1000 was even offered to find a mate for Martha but there were no more male Passenger Pigeons to be found.

In the online database of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, there are about 828 extinct species of known plants and animals; 272 of these are mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Ectopistes migratorius  is just one of them. Working in conservation, we are usually pelted with bad news about dwindling populations, vanishing habitats, and policies that are detrimental to conservation. Good news are far and few between. Martha’s death is important, not only because she was the last of her kind but more so because the demise of her kind was brought about by humans in so short a time. It took only decades for possibly the most abundant species of bird to dwindle to one individual.

But what if there is a possibility to bring extinct species back to life? It is a given that it will be long difficult process; it is given that there is a need to explore the ecological implications of what can be called ‘reintroduction’; this effort will have to be in addition to what we’ve already been doing (in situ conservation, policy-lobbying, awareness, etc). Should we give it a chance?

NB: The objective of this blog is merely to inform, and ask a question. The author is not endorsing revive&restore (http://longnow.org/revive/). An account about the Passenger Pigeons can be found at: http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_SI/nmnh/passpig.htm


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I am wildlife biologist. I get paid to study wildlife and the complex relationships they have formed with other living beings and their environment. Well, I used to get paid, that is. I recently came back to the Philippines after completing my graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, and since then, I’ve sent out somewhere around 50 job applications and inquiries. With all the none-responses and rejections, I can’t help feeling inadequate. Here I am, almost 30, with a master’s degree, without a job and still a nomad. So I write—papers for publications, more application letters and inquiries, and this blog.

If I am truly honest with myself, as much as I don’t like the word, it is my career. I maybe passionate about it, but I can’t help but think I still lack something (and perhaps that’s why I still don’t have a job). In a way, I envy the people who’ve lived all their lives in the natural world. They’re so entrenched in it that they can feel its pulse. No one is more attuned to it than they are—jungle tribes, desert people, mountain villagers, seafarers. I have to use a GPS to navigate the forest (and even then I still get lost), while these people use memory. I can barely identify plant species, let alone tell you what they’re useful for, but these people can not only name them, they can tell you a dozen ways on how to use a particular plant. I will be hard up detecting a leopard cat’s track on the moist and litter-covered forest floor, but these people can not only tell the animal have just been where you are, they can also tell the direction it was heading, and perhaps, whether it’s a male or female. The list just goes on. Perhaps they’re not as backward as we like to think they are.

Maybe instead of us going to them with our donated clothes, medical missions, high-tech gadgets, and teaching them about what we call the ‘civilized’ world maybe we should turn the tables around. Maybe during one of our international conferences, instead of academicians and scientists presenting the results of their studies from their sterile labs, or the far-flung wilderness (where they hire these people to be their guides and porters!), maybe we should have one of the indigenous peoples speak to us. Teach us how to be connected once again to nature—one that we’ve kept at bay with our well-manicured lawns, pesticides, and the exterminator. One we’ve flattened by our parking lots, shopping malls and carefully landscaped suburban villages. One that we only have a glimpse of through our shiny car windows, infrequent trips to the zoos, texts we read on our Kindles, and wildlife films we watch on our huge HD TVs and Blue-Ray players. One that is increasingly becoming largely a part of our museums, and our distant past.

I’m not advocating going back to the caves. Or living with the tribes. I just wish we’re not so disconnected. I’m getting preachy. I should go back to job-hunting.

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Biblical scholars say that Noah’s Ark measured about 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. We can argue about which cubit to use but let’s say Noah used the Roman cubit which is about 0.4445 m. That translates to an ark that measures 133.2 x 22.2 x 13.32 cubic meters. Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit who published Arca Noe in Tres Libros Digesta in 1675, said that the ark only has 150 kinds of birds, and roughly the same number of animals from the other vertebrate groups. This of course, did not include the fishes since they don’t need a boat, or those that arose from spontaneous generation. During the 17th century then, the animals did fit snugly in Noah’s Ark, not to mention his grinding mills.

By the end of the 17th century however,  500 species of birds, 150 species of quadrupeds, and roughly 10,000 species of invertebrates were recognized by science. By then, the ark is overcrowded. Now, we know that there about 5,498 species of mammals, 10,027 birds, 9,084 reptiles and 6,638 amphibians (Hoffman et al., 2010). You can tell me to exclude the marine mammals and the birds that spend most of their lives in open ocean but they still won’t fit in Noah’s Ark, however he calibrated his cubits. Especially if they came in pairs. Even if there were only a pair of rice-field rats in there.

Linnaeus solved this problem by saying that the Ark should be interpreted symbolically, rather than literally. He who has described, named, and catalogued about 6,000 species would know that biological reality does not reconcile with the Biblical story.

Taken literally, or metaphorically, with the way we’re consuming our resources, perhaps given a few years, life on Earth will fit again in Noah’s Ark.

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