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Understanding the Sixth Extinction

This article was written by Alex Steffen in January 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

When I was a child, we had a set of coffee table books full of photos and descriptions of world's marvelous animals. The Baiji, or Chinese river dolphin, was one of these animals, an exotic -- and it seemed to me improbable -- beast from the other end of the world. I felt then, and feel now, a certain sense of fellowship with such critters, which are, after all, our evolutionary cousins.

So it saddened me to read that the Baiji is no more.

It's an unpleasant fact of 21st century life that we live in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, and we can expect to hear of the departure of beloved species on a regular basis. Today the river dolphin, tomorrow the polar bear?

If it's true that “the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts" we need to wrap our brains around extinction, and really understand the various ways in which it is happening, and the potential responses available to us as we search to preserve our planet's biodiversity.

A few such resources have recently crossed my desktop, and so I thought I'd share them. I welcome reader suggestions for others in the comments.

The EDGE of Existence aims to spread awareness of the world's evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered animals (you know, weird ones like the Sumatran rhinoceros, the Aye-aye and the Golden-rumped elephant shrew), and build support for their protection. Their site is not only educational, it's beautiful and absorbing.

SEED's extinction cribsheet (PDF) is worth downloading. It's crammed with some useful explanations of ideas like the Bottleneck Effect and Coextinction.

Savvy readers will note that I linked to the Wikipedia articles referencing the two concepts above; that's no accident, and in fact, I've found much of the biology content on Wikipedia to be clear, accessible and useful (though there's always time to mess that up). Take as an example the entry explaining the concept of Conservation Status, which is "an indicator of the likelihood of that species continuing to survive either in the present day or the future," a sort of report card on a given species' long term prospects. (Wikipedia uses, as part of its manual of style, a system based on the IUCN "Red List.".)

Conservation International's Biodiversity Hotspots page, is worth a visit. offering as it does a good overview of why certain places are biologically richer than others, and why protecting those places is an important part of any plan to retain as much of the richness of life as possible.

Of course, none of these resources will help get you through the blue feelings most of us get when contemplating extinction. For that, we may need deeper cultural efforts, a playful expedition into an evolutionary game like Spore or just a good walk in the park on a sunny Spring day.

Understanding Extinction is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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