Friday, December 25, 2015

What Animals Went Extinct in 2015?

    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 2014, 2013, and 2012 editions. Given the feedback (and trolling) that last year's edition received, I want to address a few common comments/criticisms before we get into it.

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.

    Okay. I kind of have some good news: when the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) released their 2015 Red List update, they did not change the status of any species to extinct or extinct in the wild! So, there are no official global extinctions in the last year but again it is important to note that although there were almost definitely a lot of biological extinctions we just don't have enough information to make it official.  Over at Scientific American, John Platt summarized the species that the IUCN decided were critically endangered and possibly extinct in the wild. This list of species is mostly made up of plants in Hawaii but also includes a South American lizard and frog.

Image Courtesy of FCIT
    So what do we have left to talk about? Well, after a four-year review, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed declaring the Eastern Cougar extinct. This is an interesting and controversial development. For one, it is not possible to say anything about the Eastern Cougar without someone telling you a story about how they, or someone they know, has seen one. A lot of these stories are bogus or misidentified bobcats (or house cats), but not all of them. For example, three cougars have been confirmed in Tennessee in the last three months. Maybe these animals have migrated from populations out west; we will learn more about their status in the coming years.

    The Sumatran Rhinoceros is probably extinct in the wilds of Malaysia. There are still some in Indonesia (considered the same species) and a few in captivity so hopefully there is a future for this animal; but, it is desperate times. The Cincinnati Zoo, which is the only institution in the United States that has successfully bred the species, has sent their last rhino to Indonesia to help with their captive breeding efforts.

    People often ask me if there is reason for hope despite all the doom and gloom. Absolutely! There are many passionate people fighting hard to conserve the natural world. And, they are succeeding: I could provide links to lots of stories about the creation of new large reserves, new protections for many species, and reintroduction efforts that are bringing species back. We are in the midst of an alarming and global extinction crisis, but the end is not a foregone conclusion for most species.

    Did I leave out an extinction? Let me know below.

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