Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Animals That Went Extinct in 2017

    It's a tradition here at Living Alongside Wildlife to gather in one place a summary of all the animals that went extinct in the previous year. Click here for the 2016201520142013, and 2012 editions. Let's get into it.

Stichocotyle nephropis, a marine parasite of Scotland last seen in 1986, may be extinct due to overfishing of its fish hosts, writes John Platt over at The Revelator.

Lindy Lumsden/IUCN
The Christmas Island Pipistrelle, an Australian bat last seen in 2009 and known only from, you guessed it, Christmas Island, is now officially considered extinct. Why did this species disappear? It is hard to say for sure but disease and introduced species probably played a role.

That's not the only bad news from Christmas Island, unfortunately. The Lister's Gecko, the Blue-tailed Skink, and the Christmas Island Forest Skink all used to roam the island but now are considered extinct in the wild. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why they got wiped out, but some point fingers at introduced species, like the Wolf Snake, which eats them.

Parks Australia 
Both Lister's Gecko and the Blue-tailed Skink were abundant in the 1970s but they were last spotted in the wild in 2012 and 2010, respectively. There are thriving captive colonies for each of these two species though, so they are technically hanging on. Perhaps they will someday be reintroduced to their habitats.

Unlike the other two lizard species above, the Christmas Island Forest Skink does not have a captive colony to fall back on; the last known captive individual died a few years ago, so it is probably gone for real.

In 2010 the Center for Biological Diversity sent a petition to the US Fish and Wildlife Service seeking protection for the Beaverpond Marstonia, a snail from Georgia. This year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service responded, and said it is extinct. Agricultural demands on water as well as pollution likely caused the demise of this invertebrate.

The Fishing Cat is in big trouble in Southeast Asia. After extensive camera trap surveys in Java failed to turn any up there is a fear that they have gone extinct in all of Indonesia (they persist in low numbers elsewhere).

There are over 70 other species to keep a close eye on in the coming years, including for example the Jamaica Giant Galliswasp, that are considered at least critically endangered and possibly extinct in the wild. In many cases we simply just do not know enough about these creatures to know whether or not they are still hanging on.

Simply listing the species that went extinct in a given year is surprisingly tricky. Here are my answers to some commonly asked questions.

1. Just because we are always discovering "new" species doesn't mean we are offsetting extinctions somehow. When we discover a new species it is not actually new to Earth, it is just new to us. In other words, a new life form was not just created, we just happened to learn about it. There is a limited pool of species and the total number of species is decreasing. Evolution leads to the creation of new species but not on a time scale that is relevant to this conversation.

2. Human beings are one of the species on Earth. That does not mean that anything and everything we do is natural and therefore okay, even if it means causing species to go extinct. Other species have value and we should act accordingly to keep them around.

3. In my list I include species that went extinct in a globally significant region even if the species might still exist somewhere else. I think these local extinctions (called extirpations) are important. You might decide not to include them in your list of extinctions.

4. I include in my list species that went extinct in the wild, even if some individuals may still exist in captivity. See above.

5. It is often impossible to know when a species went biologically extinct. That is, there is often no way of knowing when the last individual of a given species dies. So, I often include in my list species that were declared extinct, this official designation often occurs many years after the last actual death. Again, you may not include them in your list of extinctions, but I do.

6. It is not unusual to "rediscover" a species that we thought was extinct. That is always great news. But, they are usually still critically endangered and often "really" go extinct afterwards.

Friday, December 1, 2017

We Don't Need to Save Endangered Species: All the Responses to the Washington Post Piece (Updated As New Articles are Published)

Hi all,
    Recently the Washington Post published a controversial Perspectives piece by Dr. Alex Pyron. To most readers, the piece seemed to argue that it does not matter if many species go extinct and we should not care. You can view this article here: "We don't need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution".

   The response to this article was swift and widespread. Here I do not want to provide commentary on the article (I am currently writing an independent response) but I wanted there to be a repository for all the rebuttals and commentary regarding the original piece.

   Please let me know as you become aware of additional responses.

November 22 

I posted a link to the article on my Facebook page and a lively comment thread ensued, including in-depth comments from Dr. Pyron.

On The EEB & Flow, Dr. Caroline Tucker wrote: Of course we need to save endangered species, a response. A number of problems with the Washington Post article were identified and the author concludes that it, "presents a misrepresentative and potentially harmful position about the future of the earth's biota."

November 24

Ronald Bailey provides a summary of the Washington Post piece on the Hit & Run blog and describes it as, "fascinating".

November 26

In Extinction, macroevolution, and biodiversity conservation, Dr. Santiago Claramunt Tammaro, Associate Curator in the Department of Natural History of the Royal Ontario Museum goes through the Washington Post piece pointing out the errors and misconceptions in the science and philosophy and states the conclusions are, "the result of a mix of a superficial handling of fundamental concepts and simplistic logic."

Over at A Wilderness Journal, Dr. Christopher Janousek says of the Washington Post piece, "In taking a rather extreme view of the role of conservation, the visceral reaction of many biologists to publication of this op-ed in a major media outlet is understandable. But does the author miss the mark? I think so on several major fronts."

On Greg Laden's Blog, the author dissects the Washington Post piece and what he perceived as the problems pervading the entire thing. He concludes, "There is an editor at the Washington Post that totally stepped in it."

November 27

Tom Toles, editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post responds with Don't worry about climate change - it will all be fine if you can just wait a few million years. The author concludes that the arguments in the original piece are a, "short-sighted, self-serving rampage of destruction and extinction."

Over at the Louis Project, the author offers some keen insights to help interpret the piece and put the points in context; I found the following section particularly apt: 

"There are one of two possibilities that explain Pyron’s incomprehensible fatalism. He might be an ideologue so committed to libertarian economics that the long-term prospects of civilization are indifferent to him, just as they are to the Koch brothers who could care less about the future of the planet. As they used to say during the Reagan presidency, those who die with the most toys wins. It also may be the case that the professor lacks the philosophical, ethical and historical breadth to put these questions into perspective. Unlike other scientists who make sweeping judgments on such questions like Jared Diamond or E.O. Wilson, Pyron has never written anything like this outside of his narrow scholarly interest in reptiles."

November 29

In a letter to the editor in the Frederick News-post, Elizabeth Godfrey writes that, "We cannot afford to dismiss any small part."

November 30

Dr. Josh Schimel, UC-Santa Barbara Professor, evaluates the writing and rhetoric of the Washington Post piece on his Writing Science blog: Do species matter: responding to an op-ed by R.A. Pyron in the Washington Post and concludes the author, "failed to live up to [his] basic responsibility as a scientist writer."

Green Momster says on her blog that when it comes to endangered species and extinctions, she doesn't want to get over it.

November 31

Dr. Pyron published a lengthy comment on his Facebook page detailing his intentions in writing the piece, describing what he felt he did wrong, and how  he felt his points were misconstrued.

December 1

At the PLOS Ecology Community blog, Dr. Jeff Atkins provides a summary of the controversy so far, puts it in context, and provides links to many other related articles.

The Washington Post published five Letters to the Editor written in response to the original piece. They all hated it.

On Why Evolution is True, Dr. Jerry Coyne provides a summary of the points in the Washington Post piece and says, "Well, as I always say, we can’t simply dismiss people like this by simply saying they’re wrong. We have to muster counterarguments...Here’s my view of why Pyron is misguided...". Click through to see his detailed breakdown.

December 4

After reprinting the Washington Post piece, a Cleveland newspaper runs a letter to the editor suggesting it should be retracted. They later printed another letter to the editor pointing out that Dr. Pyron walked back a number of the claims in the original piece. 

December 5

Today bioGraphic published a great commentary with incredible photos detailing our responsibility to fight for endangered species. They write, "Scientists have a social responsibility to present science and its role in society as accurately as possible. In his recent opinion piece for The Washington Post, Alexander Pyron, an associate professor of biology at The George Washington University, contends that many biologists fail this responsibility by communicating with “unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency” about the need to conserve biodiversity. In making his arguments, however, Pyron falls well short of this standard in at least four of his claims..."

December 8

On Vermont Public Radio, Ted Levin chimes in with his response to the Washington Post piece, stating that it, "may already have damaged our commitment to protect endangered species, especially at the Federal level."

December 9

All the way from New Zealand, Bob Hughes writes to provide an opposite view from the Washington Post piece.

December 10

In his weekly column for The Aspen Times, Paul Anderson writes, "How easy Pyron makes it to deny moral significance as we knowingly kill off species through habitat destruction, recklessly ignorant of the contributions these species make to the complex web of life. The article made my blood boil, so I wrote my friend a retort condemning moral myopia as the same rationale Hitler used in Nazi Germany."

December 13

As a Christian and a scientist, Joshua Holbrook provides a unique perspective to the discussion, "I have a couple things in common with Dr. Pyron – I’m a scientist, and more importantly, I’m also a herpetologist: a rare breed of biologist that will put 50,000 miles on their car in a year to see a handful of rare species only to decry corporate carbon emissions. As far as I can tell from this piece, though, that’s where the similarities cease..."

December 15

A mega letter-to-the-editor appears in the Washington Post, signed by nearly 4,000 people (including me), indicating fundamental disagreements with the original piece.

December 16

On the Bazely Biology lab site, the authors note Dr. Pyron did not effectively communicate his apparent points, writing, "I think that Dr. Pyron allowed himself to be caught in a hype cycle. Like many other ecologists, I cover all of his points in my undergraduate and graduate courses, but I am well aware of the implications of making these comments in a public space."

January 19

The pitfalls of taking science to the public, appearing in Science. On the importance of scientists asking for advice before publishing stuff written for non-scientists..

January 24

The journal BioScience publishes an article entitled, Teachable moment: the relevance of ethics and the limits of science. From the article, "It is a philosophical value disguised as a scientific conclusion."

January 28

I finally wrote my own response, which appears on Live Science: Making the Case - Again - For Saving Imperiled Species.

February 12

Carl Safina writes for YaleE360, "Much of what Pyron wrote is scientifically inaccurate. And where he stepped out of his field into ethics, what he wrote was conceptually confused..."

February 26

The Science and Ethics of Extinction is published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. The authors suggest scientists reflect on their values and communicate them effectively: biodiversity is at stake.