The Extinction of Species

It is not a secret the ecological situation on our planet is rather complicated. Apart from the common worries about global warming, industrial pollution, and rain forests being cut down, there is also a huge problem of the extinction of species; and while humanity can, hopefully, somehow stop the processes it is directly causing, it is unclear whether this extinction can be prevented or at least slowed down.

Although the words “mass extinction” definitely sounds alarming, it is not something uncommon for our planet. At the moment, we are witnessing the sixth mass extinction of species. During the past 500 million years, there already were five mass extinctions (with the biggest of them being the Permian-Triassic and the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinctions, 245 and 65 million years ago respectively), causing from 14% to 84% of the genera or families to completely disappear from the fossil record. During the first of them, the majority of the marine invertebrates, as well as a huge number of terrestrial plants and insects disappeared; the second one mostly affected the dinosaurs. Even in a relatively not-so-distant past, some animal species had gone extinct completely: about 11 thousand years ago, during the Pleistocene-Holocene period, about 100 terrestrial species died out, including mammoths, saber tooth tigers, rhinos, and even some birds (NCBI).

Moreover, there are two kinds of extinction: the one after which there is no “replacement” of an extinct species with a new, more adapted one—the so-called “dead-end extinction” which is basically the end of a certain evolutionary lineage; and taxonomic extinction, which implies that during the evolutionary process, certain species had changed to such an extent that they should be considered a different species (NCBI).

Currently, there are 14,000 to 35,000 endangered species only in the United States; 16,928 species worldwide stand on the edge of the dead-end human-caused extinction, and in order to save them, a significant amount of effort should be made. This is especially difficult considering the fact that every species’ extinction can lead to the disappearance of other species that are somehow bound to it: for example, if bees die out, many types of plants will not be able to reproduce, and will have either to adapt quickly, or will have to vanish. Such changes tend to accumulate astonishingly fast. Throughout the last five centuries, about 1,000 species of all possible sizes and shapes have gone completely extinct: huge mammals such as woodland bisons of West Virginia and Arizona, USA: passenger pigeons and Culebra parrots; Rocky Mountain grasshoppers, and so on. And this is just those of them which we can see relatively easy; it is probably impossible to calculate how many kinds of microorganisms disappear every day before scientists even get a chance to discover and study them. The size does not really matter for nature: the tiniest organism is as important for the ecosystem as the largest of mammals (Center for Biological Diversity).

The good news is that it is, in fact, possible to not only slow down extinction, but to actually save some species from the danger of vanishing. In the early 1990s, there was a program of reintroducing captive-born condors to their natural environment in California, Arizona, and northern Mexico. Before the program was launched, there were about 20 of these condors left; currently, there are more than 200 of these birds inhabiting their “original” environments. The condor’s recovery, as well as some other examples, shows it is possible to move some species away from the extreme brink. For example, gray wolves, who were almost completely killed during hunting across the whole North America by the end of 1970s, are now a relatively prosperous species counting around 3,500 specimen. Northern elephant seals are nowadays numbered around 150,000 along the West Coast, although there were fewer than a hundred of them left alive just recently. All this became possible due to the significant efforts of reintroduction (National Geographic).

Moreover, with the power of science, it is possible not only to reintroduce endangered animals to their natural environments, but to bring back those of them that are believed to have gone forever a long time ago. New discoveries in genetics, in particular the advancements connected to CRISPR-Cas9, give humanity hope of bringing back animals considered to have disappeared forever. Ecologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, believe the two species that would be especially reasonable to resurrect are the woolly mammoth, the last of which died about 4000 years ago, and the passenger pigeon, a gray bird with a red breast, once common all over North America and gone extinct in early 1900s. Scientists believe that due to technological progress, the chances of such de-extinction, so to say, are high, so the question is not “if,” but rather “when” this will be done. Both of these species were functionally unique species strongly affecting their environments, so their vanishing had changed the ecosystems they lived in as well. George Church, the lead researcher working on the resurrection of a mammoth in Harvard University, believes that these precursors of modern elephants would help turn the modern Arctic tundra back to grasslands: mammoths used to contribute to grasslands’ spreading by knocking down trees and spreading grass seeds in their dung. In their turn, the passenger pigeons were extremely important for the forests they lived in as well (ScienceMag). Reviving these two species will likely solve a number of ecological problems in an effective and quick way.

As it can be see, mass extinction is not something that had never happened before on Earth. Currently, we are witnessing the sixth mass extinction, with the main difference being the human factor greatly contributing to species’ disappearance. There are ways, however, to slow down or even turn back the processes of extinction; one of them, the more traditional one, is the so-called re-introduction of cage-bred species to their natural environments. The other more advanced one involves the most recent advancements in genetics, and will probably allow scientists to resurrect animals believed to have gone extinct forever. Thus, there is still hope for planet Earth.

Works Cited:

  1. National Research Council (US) Committee on Scientific Issues in the Endangered Species Act. “Species Extinctions: Extinctions Over Geological Time.” NCBI. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.
  2. “The Extinction Crisis.” Center for Biological Diversity. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.
  3. “20,000 Species Are Near Extinction: Is It Time to Rethink How We Decide What to Save?” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.
  4. “Should We Bring Extinct Species Back from the Dead?” ScienceMag. N.p., 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

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