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Remember the Thylacine

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The last dodo was sighted late in the 17th century near Mauritius, but the creature’s place in popular culture was cemented by its appearance in Alice in Wonderland in 1865. After Alice and various animals fall in the Pool of Tears, the Dodo makes a suggestion. ‘The best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race,’ it suggests, and makes them all run round in circles. When asked which of them has won the race, the Dodo is stumped for a moment, but then declares: ‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’

Natural selection is a more brutal game: extinctions are inevitable. It’s estimated that, before 1500 AD, for every 10,000 vertebrate species, two became extinct over the course of a century. According to a recent (conservative) calculation in Science Advances, almost 500 vertebrate species have become extinct in the last hundred years – ‘up to 100 times higher than the background rate’. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July, researchers described what’s happening as a ‘biological annihilation’, to ‘highlight the current magnitude of Earth’s ongoing sixth major extinction event’. The fifth took place 65 million years ago.

Endangered Species Day, the third Friday in May, has been promoted by the US Department of Fish and Wildlife since 2006. Less attention is given to Lost Species Day, which people have been marking on 30 November since 2010 by taking part in art projects and processions in tribute to extinct animals. There was a funeral for the great auk in 2011. The theme of this year’s Lost Species Day is pollinators, whose numbers may be in terrifying decline. One event planned in Brighton this evening advises participants to ‘wear warm clothes and bring dead flowers if you have some.’
There is a (slim) hope that endangered species can still be saved; Lost Species Day, however, is a recognition of failure, and of humanity’s collective guilt. For many people it may be hard to accept that such creatures as the mountain gorilla, the rhino and the orangutan – all critically endangered – could soon go the way of the moa and the thylacine. Lost Species Day underscores how dark the prospects are for many species (including ourselves). We need to be reminded that failure is an option.


  1. michael bosley says:

    Indeed, it seems that we are in the midst of a mass extinction event that may well exceed every other past mass extinction in its extent.

    It’s fascinating that so many people seem to think that H sapiens is somehow no longer subject to the same processes of evolution and extinction that have applied to every other species on the planet – including our own immediate ancestors. Actually, we are more like the famous Passenger Pigeon. Within 40 years of observers counting flocks numbering in the *billions*, it had vanished completely. With our extra-special “intelligence” and “ingenuity”, we have already – and within just a couple of hundreds of thousands of years of our arrival – created the conditions and the means to bring about our own extinction.

    It’s being so cheerful that keeps me going.

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