SMLI Book Report: The Sixth Extinction
Updated: Oct 10
While many of you were off doing something fun during Christmas break, here at the Museum, we were teaching Holiday Workshops, more of which are scheduled so please check out www.smli.org/holidayworkshops if you're interested in your child attending, just be aware, there are limits to how many kids we allow. But I digress...
When I was home, I needed to relax after these long days and the book "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" by Elizabeth Kolbert was that source of my relaxation.
While it may sound unusual to read about how we human beings are the source of the latest and sixth extinction, and according to the website, "Over the last half-billion years, there have been Five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us." The book was a welcome respite from hearing "Mr. Frank" time and again and also interesting and eye-opening.
Not only is this book a Pulitzer Prize winner, it is a New York Times Bestseller from 2015! Yes, some of you might not like reading how humans are responsible for changing the planet and the species thereon, like no other species has before. Or how the human-influenced climate change has lead to many species becoming extinct, but Kolbert does so in a way that is easy to read and readily comprehendible, even for those of us who are not experts in the field. To quote the Pulitzer Prize website: "She introduces us to a dozen species, some already gone, others facing extinction, including the Panamanian Golden frog, Staghorn coral, the Great Auk, and the Sumatran rhino." (Links were added.)
I personally found it heart-wrenching to read about the Great Auk and how they became so prized that people were hunting them for their eggs and so museums could satisfy their lust for them so they could be displayed. To learn that the last accepted sighting was in 1852 and that humans are/were THE driving force behind their demise, was sobering and interesting. Much like the Dodo, humans had a major, MAJOR impact on the decimation of these two flightless birds.
Not only does Kolbert paint a vivid picture of humans and how we are accelerating this sixth extinction, she weaves in her own experiences, starting with Atelopus zeteki or the Panamanian Golden Frog. An excerpt from her book follows...
As recently as a decade ago, golden frogs were easy to spot in the hills around El Valle. The frogs are toxic—it's been calculated that the poison contained in the skin of just one animal could kill a thousand average-sized mice—hence the vivid color, which makes them stand out against the forest floor. One creek not far from El Valle was nicknamed Thousand Frog Stream. A person walking along it would see so many golden frogs sunning themselves on the banks that, as one herpetologist who made the trip many times put it to me, "it was insane—absolutely insane."
Then the frogs around El Valle started to disappear.
This book is both sobering and informative, especially when Kolbert gets into her adventures in the rainforests of South America and demonstrates the "island effect" and how it is helping to relax the species there...Fair warning, this "relaxing" is not good. But there is hope in the wings as Kolbert demonstrates how some species of trees are already on the move to climates they more prefer; which she gets into in very understandable and comprehendible detail.
There were at least five major extinction-level events that happened before humans even showed up: Ordovician mass extinction, Devonian extinction, Permian–Triassic extinction event, Triassic–Jurassic extinction event and the dinosaur-ending Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. Each one horrific in their own rights for what happened to the flora and fauna of the planet. Each time, the planet recovered and the planet will recover from the current Holocene extinction, whether or not humans have the foresight to do something about the current situation and can survive it, remains to be seen.
Kolbert goes on to explains the need for a rhino keeper had to stick her arm into the anus of the animal while relaying the story of humans' attempt to help save the Sumatran rhino and the disastrous start the program got off too in the 1980s, 90s and into the early 2000s. 40 of these animals were caught and sent to zoos across America and the world, only to have them start dying almost immediately. Improper feeding, disease, injuries suffered during capture and even a case of tetanus felled these mighty animals before in 2001 saw the birth of one of these animals they'd tried so hard to save.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" by Elizabeth Kolbert is an easy read, along with a sobering reminder that while we may assume that a species of insect disappears every 100 minutes, humans are accelerating this extinction because of the way we continually pump carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, warming it.
I highly recommend this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in biological sciences. Kolbert paints a vivid picture while reminding us that we can do something about the extinction we're helping along.