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Friday, March 11, 2016

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

"'Here's another way to express the same thing,' Anthony Barnosky,  a paleontologist at the University of California-Berkley, wrote of the study results.  'Look around you.  Kill half of what you see.  Or, if you're feeling generous, just kill about a quarter of what you see.  That's what we could be talking about.'"

When talking about the animals in zoos and aquariums, I'm often struck by how many of them are endangered.  Even the ones that aren't listed as IUCN Endangered, or on one of the CITES Appendices, are generally in decline, some quicker than others.  If you so choose, you can look at the predicament of each species as a separate incident, or a regional phenomena.  Step back a little further and you can see it for what it is - a collective global tragedy.

In The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, author Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker takes readers on a global tour of our increasingly endangered world.  There have been five mass extinction events in the history of our planet.  The scientists and conservationists that Kolbert encounters believe that we are in the midst of a sixth.  The difference between this one and previous ones, they contend, is that the perpetrator can be traced to a single species - us.

The book starts of with a fascinating history of the phenomena of extinction, the shadow of evolution itself.  It describes not only how and why the process works (naturally), but tells the fascinating story of how scientists came to first know of it, through the study of fossils.  The various chapters than hop the globe, highlighting different species and how they are being impacted in a human-driven world.  One chapter details climate change and ocean acidification, for example, while another focuses on invasive species, looking at the later through the case study of North American bats being decimated by white-nose syndrome... but also detailing the brown tree snake and the destruction of Guam's avifauna, among other examples.   

The first chapter deals with one of my favorite species, the Panamanian golden frog, and describes how the Amphibian Ark is working to save the remaining amphibians of Panama from the deadly chytrid fungus.  It's some good storytelling, but I did get a little irritated at what I perceived to be Ms. Kolbert's almost dismissive attitude towards the frogs - kind of a "Well, they'll never be able to survive in the wild again, so why bother?" vibe.

During her time with field biologists in Panama, Ms. Kolbert encounters several zoo professionals, including many keepers who have volunteered to travel to Panama to provide captive care expertise , build and maintain enclosures, and search for amphibians.  She also visits the Frozen Zoo of the San Diego Zoo, as well as the Cincinnati Zoo, where she watches the ultrasound of a Sumatran rhinoceros.  In fact, zoos come up relatively often, sometimes with a "necessary evil" ambivalence, sometimes with more of a "well, at least someone is doing something."  Nothing like being damned with faint praise...

The Sixth Extinction is not a happy read, but that being said, it's not a happy topic.  Ms. Kolbert doesn't try to sugarcoat the truth, or turn it into a happy-sappy "It's all okay because look!  Some people are doing stuff!" (while discussing the Panama scenario, she scoffs at child-oriented educational materials that promote "The Frog Hotel" while ignoring the terrible reasons why the frogs need to be in "The Hotel" in the first place).  It's not so much a call-to-arms as it is a "This is really bad and it's going on.  Thought you should know."

Sometimes society needs a warm, fuzzy pep-talk.  Other times it needs the cold, hard truth.  Ms. Kolbert seems to have decided that, as far as the loss of biodiversity goes, Option #1 will only get us so far.

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