Someone has to decide which animals go extinct

Have y’all ever thought about that before? I had not! But I was reading the 2013 Best American Science and Nature Writing, edited this year by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and an essay by Michelle Nijhuis from Scientific American blew my mind out of the back of my skull. Someone has to decide which animals go extinct! Even if that is not the exact decision that gets made, it’s effectively still true: When resources are finite (and they always are), choosing to save one species means you have chosen not to save another one.

If you aren’t in denial about this truth, then your next job, as a conservation biologist, is to decide how you’re going to decide which species to save. There are some different schools of thought on this. One says, species with unique jobs or species whose existence is crucial for the survival of many other species should be our top priority. This seems pretty obvious: If all the animals in the forest depend on whitebark pine nuts for food, we should save the whitebark pines.

These dudes

Except that we don’t really understand ecosystems all that well, and we might choose wrong. Another idea is to save weird endangeredspecies, ones with few close relatives. We can probably let go of the ashy stormy petrel, because there are lots of different kinds of stormy petrels that are almost exactly the same. But Bactrian camels and Chinese salamanders don’t come from big families, so this theory suggests that we should make those a conservation priority.

I love how camels look like they don’t give a fuck, and also how they legitimately do not give a fuck. (I didn’t include a picture of Chinese salamanders because they freak me out.)

Another idea is that we should pick ecosystems we really like, and save those in toto. It’s all very controversial, and everyone gets really upset when we start talking about letting species die (cause that is upsetting), so let’s leave that behind and move on to the other article from this collection that I wanted to talk about, which discusses a wonderfully crazy concept called rewilding.

I can’t do justice, actually, to this one. It’s too nuts. You can read the whole article here and you should because it’s interesting, but I will just share the passage I liked the best:

In an article published in the journal Nature, the group [of scholars] presented a plan for what it called “Pleistocene rewilding.” When humans arrived in North America . . . they killed off most of the continent’s large mammals, leaving key ecological roles unfilled. The Pleistocene rewilders proposed finding substitute animals that could serve in their place. For instance, African or Asian elephants could be let loose to make up for the long-lost woolly mammoth.

 

The authors . . . envisioned a series of small-scale experiments leading up to the creation of “one or more ‘ecological history parks’,” which would cover “vast areas of economically depressed parts of the Great Plains.” In these huge “history parks,” elephants, camels, and African cheetahs — to replace the missing American cheetah — would roam freely.

Ahahahahaha, I love this idea so much (though I’d like the people who came up with this plan to just watch Jurassic Park real quick to get a feeling for what might go wrong). Oh SCIENCE. What did we ever do to deserve you?

  • Oh lord. The thought of having to choose which species to let go, and which ones can survive is so terrible, just like playing God. I can understand it sometimes must be necessary, but still awful, nevertheless. I am glad I don’t have to make such decisions.

    And as for that rewilding, it reminds me so much of Jurassic Park as well :D. I wonder if those scientists watched that movie.

  • Michelle Nijhuis writes great stuff. Read this one too!: http://www.psmag.com/navigation/nature-and-technology/the-doubt-makers-4542/ Paulo Bacigalupi has a new book coming out soon totally inspired by the amazing awfulness exposed by her article.

  • aliceburton

    Ok, I’m real tired, so I definitely read that as “rewinding” at first, which still makes sense if you think about it. To a degree.

  • Oh wow, I can’t imagine having to make that decision. I think I would end up feeling so guilty, no matter how I allocated the resources.

  • I love that idea! Although, it does leave me imagining American’s hunting in the great plane as poachers do in Africa.

    This is such an interesting subject, definitely one that’ll be on my mind for a while. It seems simple, but boy is it complicated. A sort of ‘we can’t please everyone’ situation.

  • Isn’t rewilding, er, wild? First time I heard about it in a book I read a few years ago I had a good laugh and, like you, wondered if the people who came up with had ever seen Jurassic Park. Before we consider bringing back mammoths, we should figure out how to keep our living elephants from going extinct.

  • It’s awful, isn’t it? I’m reading Alan Weisman’s Countdown at the moment and he mentions this. I’ll go hunt for that essay now.

  • Oh, JENNY. What did we to to deserve you? 🙂 I loved every bit of this review!

  • Funnily enough, Jurassic Park is EXACTLY what I thought of as soon as you started explaining the rewilding thing. Compulsory movie night for those scientists please, before any history parks get underway. And if they DO happen, those fences had better be mother-fucking EVERYTHING PROOF. Electricity, backup electricity, extra backup electricity, barbed wire, the works. Possibly a moat could be worked in there somewhere. Just… noooooooooooope.

  • Jenny

    I am sure we would make the wrong decision from lack of information (or lobbyists, like, save the banana or the dairy cow or whatever) and screw it up. It would probably turn out to be some bacteria we needed to save, that started off the whole process or the system gets out of whack.

  • Obviously I had to Google Chinese salamanders. They are kind of amazing.

  • Jenny, this is such a brilliant review. I think you should definitely be the person who leads the discussion among scientists. They need you!

  • That is such a zany idea! I cannot even see that proposition being accepted for serious consideration. Cool article – I need to read it.

  • aartichapati

    There was a podcast on this recently, I think Radiolab. Have you read The Wild Ones, by Jon Mooallem? You SHOULD!