If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from The Sixth Extinction, it’s that were one of the worst species on this planet, or at least worse than I initially thought and that’s saying a lot. I have a background in Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (primarily in Atmospheric Sciences, aka meteorology), and anyone who’s anyone in this area knows about climate change and the kind of horrors it presents for our future. This book not only openly acknowledges who’s to blame for it, spoiler alert―it’s us, but goes on to describe some of the catastrophes as they relate to the biodiversity of this planet. And me being a natural-processes kind of girl, I wasn’t even aware the kind of changes we wrought on our animals, except for maybe the dodo bird. Thank you Ice Age: the movie.
Within the first chapter, Elizabeth Kolbert describes the Panamanian golden frog as a symbol of good luck in the town El Valle de Anton in central Panama, even if the frogs themselves are toxic, with enough “poison contained in the skin of just one animal [that it] could kill a thousand average-sized mice–hence the vivid color” (5). Although if I’ve learned over the years in the shadow of my herpetology-obsessed brother, it’s that anything that brightly colored is poisonous and is so colored to warn you. And at one point in time, these frogs were so common, they were often found sunning themselves on the bank of a creek in El Valle, appropriately named the Thousand Frog Stream. Then in the late 1990s, a blight began to spread, wiping out not just the Panamanian golden frog, but nearly all frogs, although the golden frog is said to now be extinct in the wild since 2007 (Wikipedia).
Then there’s the little brown bats, a dominant bat in the northeastern U.S., not more than five inches long, considered once “ubiquitous in Vermont, [it] is officially listed as an endangered species in the state” (216), and probably a million more other species facing the same kind of extinction. Even though we’re not the direct cause of these species extinction, since most of these deaths were due to some kind of fungus, most of these extinctions can be traced back to us. For the American Chestnut tree, it was wiped out due a fungus imported to the U.S., probably from Japan (Kolbert 204). For the bats, it’s probably from the introduction of a fungus at a commercial cave in upstate New York, and has since been traced to Europe, where Greater mouse-eared bats are found to carry the fungus and aren’t bothered by it (215). And for the frogs, it’s probably the same thing, since multiple theories suggest that the same chytrid fungus was probably carried over by shipments of African clawed frogs or North American bullfrogs, for either pregnancy tests or human consumption (18).
These are the secret ways we kill. They’re not as obvious as habitat removal through deforestation or construction, and they’re not as flamboyant as the poaching for elephants or rhinos, but it’s still a sort of murder. Kolbert writes scientists saying as many as a minimum of 9 to 13 percent of species disappearing by 2050 (in the hopeful ‘universal dispersion’ scenario) or a maximum of 38 to 52 percent of all species (in the pessimistic ‘no dispersal’ scenario). This still averages out to about a quarter of all species on the planet disappearing in 33 years, and I haven’t even mentioned what happens regarding our oceans’ waters yet.
If you haven’t picked up a copy of The Sixth Extinction, I highly recommend you do so. I am for one usually never to read a book of non-fiction, but not only is this book highly motivating and eye-opening, it’s also entertaining in a morbid sort of way. Elizabeth talks of facts and figures almost like a history professor, making this an informative read, but she also writes as a reporter, an entertainer, using her personal experiences in each of these information-acquiring endeavors as a unique and personal experience in the progress of the sixth extinction. Did I mention it’s won a Pulitzer Prize?
Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction. New York, NY: Picador, 2014. Print.