Are we heading for another Great Dying, the period 250 million years ago when perhaps 95 per cent of species that have been found in fossils were wiped out? A new exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, Extinction: Not The End of the World?, keeps us guessing – but the outlook is ominous.
The normal extinction rate is about one species a year. A cataclysmic event, like the massive meteor strike that is believed to have accounted for the dinosaurs, can kill half of all species.
Human expansion may be another cataclysm. We are wreaking havoc by settling around the world, destroying habitats, hunting and moving species from one area to another where they sometimes knock out local species that have no natural defences against the incomer.
This process has been underway for 50,000 years, and the exhibition reckons we have lost 801 species since 1500. The good news is that’s not enough to rank as a historic mass extinction. The bad news is that the pace is quickening, dangerously.
“Many scientists believe the speed at which we are losing species will, given enough time, lead to a mass extinction, rivalling those of the past,” warns an exhibition caption.
To our usual activities – hunting, habitat destruction and helping invasive species – we must now add “the threat of climate change, pollution and ever-expanding population…
“A warmer world would shift the climate zones many species live in and more extreme weather events could change habitats.” These older and newer threats combined “may well cause a perfect storm leading to the next mass extinction.”
Scientists estimate that 41 per cent of amphibians, 25 per cent of mammals and 13 per cent of birds are threatened by extinction, and the survival of many other species hangs in the balance. That’s well on the way to the cataclysmic 50 per cent.
It takes 10,000 years to recover from a mass extinction, so we won’t be around to enjoy the renaissance.
In the meantime, we can experience the schadenfreude of exhibitions such as this, with its dodos and great auks; its tiger skin coat; its Sloane’s uranie, the most beautiful moth you’ve ever seen – a dead one, of course; its photograph of a mountain of bison skulls waiting to be ground down for fertiliser.
It’s not all bad news. There were 22 Californian condors in 1981 but the population is recovering, as is the Hawaian goose, which was down to 30 by the mid-1990s.
Others, such as bluefin tuna, might be saved by eating less of them and enforcing conservation measures. The Potosi pupfish lost their habitat when it was drained of water, but a few were given asylum in the London Zoo where they bide their time, waiting for their place in life to come again.
Some of the losses we may not regret. Like the smallpox virus.
As the exhibition says, extinction is not necessarily the end of the world: it can be just the beginning, as new species emerge. After all, more than 99 per cent of the species that have ever lived on Earth have now died out. Yet plenty remain.
And, yes, with DNA and a compatible host mother it’s technically possible to clone an extinct species back to life. says the exhibition, and no, we won’t be able to replace dinosaurs, Jurassic Park-style, because “you need a near-perfect DNA sample to work from, something we simply don’t have for dinosaurs…”
* Extinction: Not The End of the World? is at the Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7, until 8 September. Tickets: adults £9, children and concession £4.50, family £24. Info: 7942 5011/ Exhibition
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