Getting to Know the Last Ground Sloths – by Matt Stanfield

The Americas lost most of their giant beasts when a wave of extinction swept them between the twelfth and the eighth millennia BC. Precisely what caused this cataclysm remains a source of controversy. That said, humans appear to have expanded their range of settlement in the Western Hemisphere around this time, so it is likely we had at least a hand in the matter.

At any rate, amongst the victims of the prehistoric American extinction pulse were the giant ground sloths, a highly successful group once found from Patagonia to the Great Lakes. Yet the ground sloths’ final curtain did not come down in the eighth millennium BC. Colossi such as Megatherium americanum might have vanished, but on a series of refugia, remnants persisted. The last ground sloths still wandered Caribbean forests around the time that Ancient Egypt’s first pyramids were raised. These animals were much smaller than their lost relatives. The biggest, such as Megalocnus rodens of Cuba, were comparable in size to a large sheep.

Detail of a Megatherium americanum skeleton cast, Natural History Museum, London. Image: Matt Stanfield, 2018

The Caribbean islands are thought to have lost at least seven sloth species in the last nine thousand years, with at least one within the last five thousand. It is believed the end of the ground sloths was precipitated by human settlement in the Caribbean, six thousand years or more ago. Certainly, few ground sloth remains have been carbon-dated to times much beyond the earliest evidence of humans on their islands.

The relative proximity of these creatures’ last days to our own time fascinates me. Compared to their continental kin, the Antillean sloths are obscure, with restorations of their life appearance hard to come by. Wanting to develop my understanding of these peculiar leftovers, I decided to try a life reconstruction of one such sloth. I selected Acratocnus ye, whose scientific name translates into English as “yesterday’s powerless sloth”. Taxonomists can be very cruel…

A. ye, though tiny compared to titans like Megatherium, was not as hapless as its name suggests. Standing on its hind legs, the solidly-built sloth reached a respectable metre or so in height. This is far in excess of the roughly guinea pig-sized Hispaniolan hutia, the biggest native mammal species remaining in A. ye’s former range.

The obscurity of Acratocnus ye meant I could only find a few pictures of subfossil bones and a medium-resolution image of a complete skeleton for reference. This limited supply of visual references suited me well. I prefer reconstructing obscure animals because not only does uncertainty give me more room for imagination, but, on a more prosaic note, the fewer total drawings of a species that exist, the fewer better drawings than mine there are likely to be! Below is a sketch of the skeletal photo which I used as the main reference for my piece (I think the original image is copyrighted, hence the reproduction).

Sketch of a reconstructed Acratocnus ye skeleton, Matt Stanfield, 2018

Reconstructions of recently-extinct species are not only a learning experience for me, but an emotive one. Working on these pieces forces close consideration of those anatomical details that define an animal’s appearance. This process, I find, infuses a personal notion of the organism’s essence into my memory. It actually has a vaguely devotional feel to it, since I usually feel more attached, in some way, to creatures which I have drawn, as opposed to those I have not.

In the case of ground sloths, the matter of the animals’ “essence” is a challenging one to address. If you wanted to reconstruct the life appearance of say, a sabre cat or mastodon, there are living creatures which provide a viable reference point. Less so for ground sloths. Contemporary tree sloths are highly adapted to an idiosyncratic lifestyle, meaning that even the smaller ground sloths had a markedly different external appearance to their arboreal relatives. Thus, I aimed to give my Acratocnus a “look” distinct from extant animals.

Acratocnus ye, Matt Stanfield, 2017

Ground sloths being tricky to pin down visually, I found that the Acratocnus ye on my page passed through various “looks”. Initially, the stocky legs and long tail gave the lost mammal taking shape on the page a kangaroo-like aspect. The addition of a barrel-shaped torso conjured up thoughts of a bear standing on its hind legs. When it came time to cap off the Acratocnus, it took some work to stop the head from (unexpectedly) resembling an otter’s.

After dozens of hours, the piece was complete. Sadly, due to the technique which I used, it doesn’t photograph brilliantly. Be assured though that thousands of individually-drawn hairs went into the pelt, not to mention the time taken on claws, eyes, muzzle and ears. Whilst I’m finally satisfied enough with my tribute to A. ye to make it public, there are various snags I was unable to fully rectify. Firstly, the limited reference material caused me some confusion regarding the sloth’s feet (which is why they aren’t shown). Second, not having a scale for the species, for most of the drawing process I envisaged A. ye as about double its actual size. Resultantly, my ground sloth has a bit more heft than it perhaps should. Lastly, I somewhat lazily portrayed Acratocnus ye in a very over-used pose for ground sloths: rearing up and leaning on a tree. There’s no excuse for my repeating of this tired trope. Nevertheless, I hope that you enjoy my visual salute to a virtually unknown animal that vanished on the very cusp of the historical era.

Matt Stanfield

With reference to Cooke, Dávalos, Mychajliw, Turvey & Upham, ‘Anthropogenic Extinction Dominates Holocene Decline of West Indian Mammals’, in Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics. August 23, 2017. 48:301-27. Consulted at https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-110316-022754

With thanks to Mo Hassan of https://www.mocoillustration.com for help with translation of A. ye’s binomial

Lament

Two new works especially made for Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2017, in honour of lost and disappearing pollinators.

Xerces blue – Sherrell Cuneo Biggerstaff (Embroidery)

The Xerces blue (Glaucopsyche xerces) is an extinct species of butterfly in the gossamer-winged butterfly family. The species lived in coastal sand dunes of the Sunset District of San Francisco peninsula. The Xerces blue is believed to be the first American butterfly species to become extinct as a result of loss of habitat caused by urban development. The last Xerces blue was seen in 1941 or 1943.

Silent Spring – Jilliene Sellner (Audio)
Silent Spring is the title of Rachel Carson’s book published in 1962 warning of the impending environmental disaster of unbridled industrial pesticide manufacture and use. This sound piece refers both directly and indirectly to Carson, related or inspired work such as Massive Attack’s track Silent Spring, Steven Stucky’s symphonic poem of the same title, as well as crop spraying and extracts from David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Maggie Gee’s The Ice People. The work is a lament and dreaming of reversal knowing what otherwise lies ahead.

Rougette – by Matt Stanfield

Featured image: taxidermic rougette, with faint reddish-orange “collar” still visible despite fading. Image: Wikimedia CC, citron

A triple thread of discrimination, exploitation and subjugation runs through many historical extinctions. These injustices have long constrained the agency of entire strata of human societies. Above the disadvantaged many, a revolving cast of small elites have sat and called the shots. How many wage-slaves in the so-called rich world possess one iota of the power of the super-rich? And what of the agency of those trapped in the sweatshops and subsistence farms of the world?

Of course, injustice is not just an economic issue. Racism, misogyny, religiously-inspired bigotry and much more besides all fuel the malign inequities of the modern age. Moreover, cruelty and callousness amongst humans has a long, sad history of bleeding far beyond the boundaries of our own species.

This is one such tale. It is a story of slavery, in this case carried out for the benefit of French and British plantation owners, at the expense of the life and liberty of many living around the Indian Ocean. This tale of despoliation on Mauritius and Réunion also accounts for the extinction of a small and singular bat species: the rougette.

 The Dutch abandoned Mauritius in 1710 and five years later France laid claim to it. French settlers had already established themselves on nearby Île Bourbon (later Réunion) decades prior. One hundred-and-twelve years of Dutch activity on Mauritius had profoundly harmed its ecosystem. Six bird species and one lizard are thought to have vanished, with likely much more besides. Yet Mauritius retained a great many wondrous species.

Amongst these was the small Mauritian flying fox (Pteropus subniger), also found on Réunion. Alluding to the band of reddish fur around their necks, the French often called them rougettes. The Pteropus genus contains some of Earth’s largest bats, such as Pteropus vampyrus, whose wings might span five feet. As suggested by their English common name, rougettes were far smaller, about two feet from wingtip to wingtip. When the French began settling Mauritius in earnest during the 1720s, the creatures were common.

This would not last. Mauritius’ new masters had a plan for it. Thousands of enslaved African, Malagasy and Asian people were shipped there to work in the lucrative sugar industry. For over a century Île de France, as the island was renamed, would be a brutal slave colony. Though the percentage of Île de France covered in sugar plantations grew quite slowly, about one-sixth of the already disturbed forests were felled under French rule. The enslaved were tasked with carrying out the backbreaking clearances.

Rougettes were especially vulnerable to deforestation due to their unusual roosting habits. Early observers wrote that up to four hundred might roost inside a single old hollow tree. Most of the rougette’s congeners roost on tree branches, not crammed together in crevices. As old-growth forest was destroyed, suitable roosts for this bat grew scarcer. P. subniger suffered a further consequence of human cruelty: enslaved people were fed appallingly, with those working the sugar fields given far fewer calories than required, and negligible quantities of protein. Survival depended on supplementing what were basically starvation rations.

Eating the native fauna was the best hope for long-term survival available to enslaved people on Île de France and Île Bourbon alike. The eighteenth-century French observer De la Nux claimed rougette hunting on Île Bourbon originated with enslaved Madagascans, though this is unverifiable. Anyhow, by the eighteenth century rougettes were, in De la Nux’s unsympathetic opinion, part of the diets of ‘numerous poorly off and unfastidious people’. P. subniger were fatty creatures, an adaptation to the cooler temperatures of their favoured high-altitude forests. This made them an invaluable source of calories for many denizens of the French Mascarenes.

Eighteenth-century engraving of enslaved people on cleared land near Port Louis, in north-western Mauritius. Image public domain.

In 1815, after the French Revolution broke the power of the Bourbon kings and Napoleon lost his wars, Britain became the colonial master of Île de France, restoring the name of Mauritius to the island. Île Bourbon stayed under French rule.

Deforestation cost Mauritius around a quarter of its remaining virgin forest over just twenty years of British rule. Simultaneously sugar cane cultivation expanded vastly, though cane fields did not replace much of the forest. Instead the felled wood fuelled the sugar-mills. Despite all this, at least one record suggests Mauritian rougettes may have remained reasonably common into the early 1830s.

Everything changed for Mauritius on 1 April 1835, with the formal abolition of slavery. Three in every four of Mauritius’ inhabitants were told that they were now free. Tragically “emancipation” was a poisoned chalice. Whilst Britain’s government compensated former slave owners for their “inconvenience”, nearly eighty thousand former slaves on Mauritius faced two unpromising options. Either they could serve an “apprenticeship” to their former masters, or try to eke out a life away from the settled parts of the island. Unsurprisingly the majority chose to abandon the savagery of the plantations, heading for isolated parts of the island to practice slash-and-burn peasant agriculture. Though this internal diaspora of the desperate likely harmed rougette populations, especially in those parts of the highlands which were settled, none of those involved had chosen to be on the island in the first place.

Much the greater act of ecological harm in the wake of 1835 was the work of the “plantocracy”. It proved profitable for plantation owners to import indentured Indian labourers to replace their slaves. The sugar industry boomed. The cost was the suffering of tens of thousands of Indians and the halving of Mauritius’ forested area in just a decade.

On Île Bourbon things were no better. Slavery remained legal there until 1848, when political upheaval in France led to formal abolition and a new name for the island: Réunion. In an inversion of the situation on Mauritius, it was impoverished white settlers who occupied the highlands of Réunion which harboured the island’s remaining rougettes.

The rougette as it once was. Hand-coloured French engraving from the late nineteenth-century. Image public domain.

In the end, nearly two centuries of plantation agriculture-driven hunting and habitat destruction would drive P. subniger extinct. The final record on Réunion came in 1862, with the animal last reported on Mauritius two years later. Live rougettes were not heard of again.

The sting in the tail of the bats’ demise is that, being primarily nectarivorous, plants which they pollinated might have passed into oblivion with them. We’ll never know.

 

Bibliography
Cheke, Anthony & Hume, Julian P., Lost Land of the Dodo (London, 2009)

Flannery, Tim & Schouten, Peter, A Gap in Nature (London, 2001)

Macmillan, Allister, Mauritius Illustrated (London, 1914)

Various authors, IUCN Red List, online (2017)

Various authors, Volume 1: Truth and Reconciliation Committee Report (Mauritius, 2012)

 

Hawaii’s emptying skies – by Matt Stanfield

Paintings of Oahu akialoa (top) & Lanai akialoa (bottom). Images public domain

Not long ago, the Hawaiian archipelago supported a plethora of pollinating birds. Today, many are extinct, with others feared lost or experiencing worrisome declines. Since the early nineteenth-century, twelve of Hawaii’s specialist avian nectar-eaters have become extinct, leaving at most eight known species behind. Seeing images of all twelve of these birds gathered together in one place is an effective and affecting way of getting a true sense of Hawaii’s losses.

The Hawaiian Islands are thought to have first been settled fewer than eight hundred years ago, at the tail end of Polynesian expansion across the Pacific. The arrival of humans in these isolated ecosystems bought with it our species’ calling card: an extinction pulse. The Polynesians, along with the pigs, dogs, chickens and rats who accompanied them, are thought to have been responsible for the loss of many lifeforms.

European arrival from the late eighteenth-century onwards contributed its own wave of death and destruction. Smallpox and other diseases killed many native Hawaiians, and the fauna of the islands experienced further depletion.

Hawaiian nectarivorous birds are divided into two groups: honeycreepers and honeyeaters (though the latter are no relation of the other bird species which are referred to as honeyeaters) Akialoa were honeycreepers, in a genus containing four living members when Europeans arrived in Hawaii. Today all are gone.

The Lanai akialoa disappeared first. Its decline seems to have predated European arrival, as fossils suggest it once inhabited other islands besides Lanai. Habitat loss and the ongoing damage wrought on Hawaii’s ecosystem by the Polynesians’ pigs likely doomed it.

Oahu’s akialoa fared a little better, with the last report dating from 1940. Forest clearance for American sugarcane ventures deeply damaged these birds. They also suffered a more sinister scourge: avian influenza. Spread by mosquitoes, who may have arrived in the bilge water of whaling ships, this disease continues to ravage Hawaiian avifauna to this day.

Paintings of Hawaii mamo (top) & black mamo (bottom). Images public domain

The Big Island’s Hawaii mamo was imperilled before James Cook’s 1778 landfall on the archipelago. The birds’ six to eight yellow feathers were used to manufacture garments for Hawaiian nobles and royalty. One particular cloak may have cost an obscene sixty thousand mamo their lives. Still, the Hawaii mamo might yet live today without the bitter blows dealt by European-led deforestation for cattle ranching, and avian flu.

Often seen with a pollen-dusted forehead after feeding on lobelia flowers, the black mamo, whose range had already been reduced by the Polynesians, was scientifically described in 1893. The last recorded bird was shot fourteen years later. The introduction of cattle, deer and mongooses is blamed for the loss of this species.

Taxidermic greater amakihi. Image public domain

Eating both nectar and insects, the greater amakihi does not appear to have been known to the natives of Hawaii’s Big Island. Western collectors discovered this bird perhaps only a decade before Western investors destroyed it. Scientifically described in 1892, the species was last recorded in 1901, just before its tiny home range was cleared to make way for a sugarcane plantation.

Painting of female (left) & male (right) Laysan honeycreepers. Image public domain

The Laysan honeycreeper, which favoured the nectar of its island’s native flowers, was last recorded in 1923. Europeans, not Polynesians, seem to have been the first people to settle Laysan. Just one of them served to seal the birds’ fate: Max Schlemmer, who released rabbits there in the 1890s, hoping to use them for meat. The rabbits bred explosively, eradicating most of the vegetation on which the Laysan honeycreepers fed.

Taxidermic lesser akialoa (top) & Kauai akialoa (bottom). Images public domain

So far as can be gleaned, none of the akialoa species were common by the time Europeans reached the Hawaiian Islands. Both of these pollinators were ultimately undone by the sugarcane industry’s ruination of forests working in tandem with the invisible spread of mosquito-borne avian diseases. The lesser akialoa has not been reported since 1940. In 1969, when the ultimate agent of its demise first walked on the moon, the Kauai akialoa was last reported. With its passing, the entire akialoa genus ended.

Taxidermic kioea. Image public domain

Whilst gravely damaged by human activity, several nectarivorous Hawaiian honeycreepers yet persist. The Hawaiian honeyeater family (Mohoidae) was less fortunate. They are generally thought to be the only avian family extinct in modern times. Even within an order as large as that of the perching birds, losing a whole family is significant. For instance chameleons, in all their distinctiveness, represent a single family amongst Earth’s snakes and reptiles. The kioea, last recorded in 1859, is thought to have been a victim of logging, introduced species and hunting.

Paintings of Oahu Oo (top) & Hawaii Oo (bottom). Images public domain

Black, yellow and beautiful, these two species have been extinct for some time. The Oahu Oo vanished nearly two hundred years ago, last being recorded in 1837. Hunting by native Hawaiians for its yellow feathers may have contributed, though the prime causes of extinction are thought to have been introduced disease and habitat destruction in the wake of European contact. The Hawaii Oo was last recorded in 1934, suffering a similar fate to its relative on Oahu.

Taxidermic Kauai Oo (top) & Bishop’s Oo (bottom). Images public domain

Bishop’s Oo was last definitively recorded in 1904, although reports persisted for decades afterwards on its former island home of Molokai. As with other species in this piece, fossil remains indicate it may have been more widespread before the arrival of Polynesian settlers. In recent times, the range of these birds was much more restricted. The most recent notable sighting was in 1981. Given this species has not been unequivocally seen alive in over a century, it is surely lost now. Cattle ranching and pineapple cultivation have much altered Molokai, and introduced avian diseases are as problematic there as elsewhere.

Kauai’s Oo was the last survivor of the Mohoidae. Once common, it entered a steep decline during the early twentieth century. Again, habitat destruction and disease-bearing mosquitoes were the key culprits. In 1987, the mating song of a male Kauai Oo was recorded. Over untold millennia, his species had evolved a delicate call-and-response duet. But for Earth’s last Kauai Oo, there would be no answer. He died later that year.

 

 

 

The Lost Pollinator Lizards of Rodrigues – by Matt Stanfield

In 2017 Remembrance Day for Lost Species will focus on pollinators, a broader theme than in some past years. This may be apt given reports that Earth may be on the brink of a full-spectrum ecological collapse unparalleled since the Dinosaur Age came crashing down. In the months leading up to Lost Species Day itself on 30 November, these regular “Lost Species of the Month” posts will commemorate a selection of extinct pollinators.

The notion of a lizard being a pollinator is rather strange. Unlike hummingbirds or bees, these creatures are hardly synonymous with dynamism or industry. An unfair characterisation of reptiles as sluggish, dull and abhorrent may have contributed to the role of certain lizards in pollination going largely overlooked.

Pollinator decline is rightly making headlines, but for some species the decline has already proven terminal. Two such creatures lived on the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues. This isolated speck of land, along with the other Mascarenes, is often seen as a hotspot for recent island extinctions. However it might better be considered an unusually well-documented example, due to only having been settled during the seventeenth century.

The lost pollinators in question are the Rodrigues day gecko (Phelsuma edwardnewtoni) and the Rodrigues giant day gecko (Phelsuma gigas). Both common names are a little misleading. The Rodrigues day gecko was one of the largest members of its genus and the Rodrigues giant day gecko is thought to have been nocturnal!

Insects and nectar are believed to have comprised the bulk of these species’ diets. In the process of their nectar sipping, it is thought the geckos accumulated pollen on their faces and inadvertently spread it between flowers during their meals. This behaviour has recently been observed in other members of Phelsuma. Interestingly, one genus of Mascarene flowering plants produces coloured nectar, an extremely rare trait amongst plants. This nectar attracts Phelsuma geckos better than standard colourless nectar, suggesting coevolution between these plants and their reptilian pollinators.

Fig.1: Sculpted restoration of a Rodrigues giant day gecko. Image Wikimedia Commons by Abu Shawka

The Rodrigues giant day gecko (P. gigas) was the first of the two to become extinct. It was described in 1708 by François Legaut as being: “of greyish colour, and very ugly: they are as big and long as one’s arm.” In the opinion of this lizard enthusiast, Legaut was wrong to call this impressive-looking animal ugly, but was right to emphasise its size. The Rodrigues giant day gecko was the largest known gecko ever, potentially reaching over half a metre in length.

Like Mauritius and Réunion, Rodrigues was ravaged by European colonial activity. Its forests were burnt down to flush out its giant tortoises and clear land for livestock rearing. Along with habitat loss, Earth’s biggest gecko was dealt a sucker punch with the introduction of rats and cats, who feasted on the lizards and their eggs.

By 1840, Phelsuma gigas was confined to a few offshore islets. On the basis of five living geckos taken from one of these refugia, the species was formally described in 1842 by a French librarian named Liénard. One survived several months in captivity, refusing all food except sweetened water from a spoon. Liénard’s spoon-fed lizard was the last of its kind recorded alive. Nothing but a handful of assorted bones still remains.

 

Fig.2: Museum specimen of the Rodrigues day gecko. Image Wikimedia Commons by Jurriaan Schulman

The Rodrigues day gecko (Phelsuma edwardnewtoni) appears to have hung on a little longer than its larger relative. Legaut again provides the earliest record of these animals, who made quite a favourable impression on him and his companions:

“The palm trees and Latan palms are always laden with lizards about a foot long, the beauty of which is very extraordinary…the colour of each the most lively and bright of any of its kind…They are not mischievous, and so tame, that they often come and eat the melons on our tables, and in our presence, and even in our hands; they serve for prey to some birds. When we beat ‘em down from the trees with a pole, these birds would come and eat them from our hands, tho’ we did our utmost to hinder them; and when we offered to oppose them, they came on still after their prey”

Within two centuries of the publication of this curiously touching tale of island naivety, the Rodrigues day gecko had been eradicated from the main island. Habitat destruction and introduced predators were responsible. By the latter half of the nineteenth century rats were spreading across Rodrigues’ surrounding islets. Two last Phelsuma edwardnewtoni were collected in 1917 and sent to Paris, where they are preserved in alcohol for posterity. The species is thought to have succumbed to rats shortly thereafter. Today Rodrigues has no surviving endemic reptiles.

Elsewhere in the Mascarenes, geckos do continue to pollinate certain plants, particularly Trochetia flowers with their colourful nectar. The blue-tailed day gecko, a diminutive relative of Rodrigues’ lost lizards, still serves as a crucial pollinator of Mauritian Trochetia.

Recently it has been suggested that Gunther’s gecko, another large Mascarene day gecko species, could be introduced onto some of Rodrigues’ now rat-free islets. This rewilding project could serve two useful purposes. First, Gunther’s gecko is endangered, presently confined to a single area of less than two square kilometres. Establishing a second population of this animal could help ensure its survival. Second, Gunther’s gecko is considered an ecologically-comparable species to Rodrigues’ lost geckos. Potentially it could revive vanished interplays between plant and lizard. As with other rewilding proposals, only time will tell whether it will come to fruition.

 

 

 

 

“Biological Annihilation” – by Damian Carrington

A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades means a sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is under way and is more severe than previously feared, according to research.

Scientists analysed both common and rare species and found billions of regional or local populations have been lost. They blame human overpopulation and overconsumption for the crisis and warn that it threatens the survival of human civilisation, with just a short window of time in which to act.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, eschews the normally sober tone of scientific papers and calls the massive loss of wildlife a “biological annihilation” that represents a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisation”.

Prof Gerardo Ceballos, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, who led the work, said: “The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language.”

Previous studies have shown species are becoming extinct at a significantly faster rate than for millions of years before, but even so extinctions remain relatively rare giving the impression of a gradual loss of biodiversity. The new work instead takes a broader view, assessing many common species which are losing populations all over the world as their ranges shrink, but remain present elsewhere.

The scientists found that a third of the thousands of species losing populations are not currently considered endangered and that up to 50% of all individual animals have been lost in recent decades. Detailed data is available for land mammals, and almost half of these have lost 80% of their range in the last century. The scientists found billions of populations of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians have been lost all over the planet, leading them to say a sixth mass extinction has already progressed further than was thought.

The scientists conclude: “The resulting biological annihilation obviously will have serious ecological, economic and social consequences. Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.”

They say, while action to halt the decline remains possible, the prospects do not look good: “All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.”

Wildlife is dying out due to habitat destruction, overhunting, toxic pollution, invasion by alien species and climate change. But the ultimate cause of all of these factors is “human overpopulation and continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich”, say the scientists, who include Prof Paul Ehrlich, at Stanford University in the US, whose 1968 book The Population Bomb is a seminal, if controversial, work.

“The serious warning in our paper needs to be heeded because civilisation depends utterly on the plants, animals, and microorganisms of Earth that supply it with essential ecosystem services ranging from crop pollination and protection to supplying food from the sea and maintaining a livable climate,” Ehrlich told the Guardian. Other ecosystem services include clean air and water.

“The time to act is very short,” he said. “It will, sadly, take a long time to humanely begin the population shrinkage required if civilisation is to long survive, but much could be done on the consumption front and with ‘band aids’ – wildlife reserves, diversity protection laws – in the meantime.” Ceballos said an international institution was needed to fund global wildlife conservation.

The research analysed data on 27,500 species of land vertebrates from the IUCN and found the ranges of a third have shrunk in recent decades. Many of these are common species and Ceballos gave an example from close to home: “We used to have swallows nesting every year in my home near Mexico city – but for the last 10 years there are none.”

The researchers also point to the “emblematic” case of the lion: “The lion was historically distributed over most of Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East, all the way to northwestern India. [Now] the vast majority of lion populations are gone.”

Read the full article in the Guardian online.

Deicide on the Long River: The Story of the Baiji – by Matt Stanfield

Baiji Dolphin by Lucy Campbell Baiji by Lucy Campbell – courtesy of the artist

Chinese history stretches back thousands of years, with much of the modern nation’s heartland falling under the control of a single dynasty before the Romans even finished conquering Italy. In the ensuing millennia the Yangtze, Earth’s third-longest river, would become a major focal point of East Asia’s grandest civilisation.

In the days of Imperial China, the waters of what would come to be known as the “Long River” held a multitude of marvels. Amidst the ranks of the Yangtze’s endemic fish species were the high-fin loach, nicknamed an “ugly duckling in reverse” and the mighty Yangtze paddlefish, reaching lengths of over twelve feet. Besides the fish were other giants and oddities, including soft-shelled turtles weighing as much as a lion and diminutive finless porpoises.

Arguably the most celebrated of all the river’s residents was Lipotes vexillifer, the “Goddess of the Yangtze”. Commonly known as the baiji, this species of river dolphin occupies a special place in ancient Chinese mythology. The fable once told of the baiji is infused with human suffering and death, as indeed was these animals’ ultimate fate.

The story goes that a beautiful young girl lived on the banks of the Yangtze with her cruel stepfather. One day, he took the girl onto the river by boat, meaning to sell her at market. En route, he became intoxicated by her beauty, deciding to take advantage of her. The girl freed herself by plunging into the river, whereupon a storm sank her stepfather’s boat. Once the storm passed, a beautiful dolphin was seen swimming and taken to be the incarnation of the girl. The animal was dubbed the Goddess of the Yangtze: a symbol of peace, prosperity and protection.

Painting of a baiji, Geisler et al. via Wikimedia Commons

For millennia, thousands of these blue-and-cream cetaceans swam in the Yangtze beneath the sailboats of traders and fishermen. But nothing lasts forever, and two centuries of bloody upheaval would end Imperial China and the baiji alike. In 1793, a British diplomatic mission to the Chinese Emperor was haughtily dismissed as a rabble of barbarians. However the “barbarians” would return, with a strength born of their Industrial Revolution, sailing thousands of troops up the Yangtze into the heart of China. By the mid-nineteenth century, steam-powered Western gunboats patrolled the Emperor’s greatest waterway.

China’s national humiliation and brutal treatment by the West, and later the Japanese, triggered the overthrow both of the imperial regime and its republican successor. This second Chinese revolution, concluding in 1949, would have grave consequences indeed. Following decades of brutal war, the Communist leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Mao sought to restore his ravaged homeland’s once paramount standing amongst nations. China would be forever changed.

In 1950, the lower Yangtze held around six thousand baiji, much the same number as when China’s first imperial dynasty was founded. In 1958 Mao initiated China’s “Great Leap Forward”. This attempt to create industrialised socialism in the People’s Republic was a cataclysmic disaster. Perhaps as many as fifty-five million Chinese died in the resulting famine. The Great Leap Forward also proved an ecological catastrophe. A massive nationwide furnace-building drive led to rampant deforestation to provide fuel, which in turn exacerbated desertification. Certain traditions were also denounced, including the venerated status of the baiji.

No longer protected by custom, the dolphins were made horribly vulnerable at a stroke. Against a backdrop of famine, they were hunted for their meat. A grisly cottage industry also emerged, with baiji skin being cut and stitched into handbags and gloves. Whilst the Great Leap Forward only lasted four appalling years, severe damage had been done. The Goddess of the Yangtze was in deep trouble.

China’s rapid population growth after the famine meant ever more mouths to feed. Fishing activity in the baiji’s home waters intensified, with motorised boats dragging thousands of hooks each behind them through the cloudy river. Baiji became entangled in this new fishing apparatus and drowned, with others scythed to death by propellers.

In 1979 China’s government officially declared the dolphins endangered. By now, maybe a tenth of their mid-century population remained. In the following decades, attempts were made to save the baiji, but time was already short and the odds were ever-mounting against the species’ survival.

A surfacing baiji, image public domain

In 2006, a six-week survey of the Yangtze by thirty researchers found no sign of the baiji. They were declared functionally extinct in December that year, since fewer were thought to survive than the continuation of the species required.

Research indicates that the loss of the baiji is of particular significance: it was the sole representative of the Lipotidae, an entire cetacean family. More than twenty million years of unique evolutionary history gave Earth the baiji. We took about one-millionth of that time to drive them to the brink of extinction.

Scientists’ despondency about the baiji is sadly well-placed. Almost a half-billion people inhabit the Yangtze drainage basin. The river itself is astoundingly polluted, fringed by over four hundred-thousand “chemical enterprises”, turning former baiji habitat into what PRC state media call a “pollution belt”. Unsurprisingly, many of the river’s other species are at risk of following the dolphins into oblivion.

The suffering of China’s people in the centuries since a newly-industrialised West first turned its sights on the vast Qing Empire has been mirrored by the suffering of its wildlife and ecosystems. Unfortunately, another sinister innovation of Mao’s now has environmental repercussions far beyond the People’s Republic: namely his promotion of “Traditional Chinese Medicine”. This highly-lucrative field is a now a major driver of species endangerment worldwide.

One poignant example of this endangerment is the vaquita, native to the Gulf of California. This child-sized porpoise may soon vanish due to insatiable Chinese demand for the swim bladders of the totoaba fish who share its habitat. Nearly all Earth’s vaquita have already drowned in the nets of Mexico’s totoaba fishery. It would be a grim irony indeed if two disparate cetacean species were lost in such quick succession, paying the ultimate price for China’s bitter struggle to reclaim its former glory.

 A pair of vaquita, image public domain

Lucy Campbell’s works explore the worlds of lost, disappearing and mythical creatures. Her baiji painting was made as part of a shared project with storyteller Andreas Kornevall  – read Andreas’ version of the ancient baiji myth, illustrated by Lucy, on his website.

the only specimen of a Liverpool pigeon

The strange tale of the Liverpool pigeon – by Matt Stanfield

Where does a species belong? This question has a variety of interlinked answers. For instance, there is the geographic answer: the species’ natural habitat. Then there is the ecological answer: the role which a species plays in its ecosystem. There is also the issue of taxonomy: where the species fits into the evolutionary tree of life.

This is the tale of a species for which all these questions were long unanswered: the Liverpool pigeon. Despite its common name, this creature was never native to the north-western port city, nor indeed to any part of the British Isles.

The first known record of this pigeon dates from 1783, when English ornithologist John Latham described it, having seen two taxidermied birds in private collections. Latham gave these birds their original common name, the “spotted green pigeon”. In 1789, this apparently new species got its first binomial: Columba maculata. Decades later, Latham illustrated his descriptions, as shown below.

Liverpool pigeon

Spotted green pigeon, John Latham, 1823. Image public domain.

One of the specimens Latham saw belonged to a London-based military officer and sometime naturalist named Thomas Davies. After Davies’ death in 1812, his pigeon was purchased by the 13th Earl of Derby, journeying with him to Merseyside. The fate of the other taxidermied pigeon which Latham saw is unknown. This lost specimen may have been more mature than the Earl’s pigeon, since Latham also drew a more brightly-coloured version of the bird. In 1851, the Earl’s collection was incorporated into the Derby Museum, later renamed the World Museum, Liverpool.

By the late nineteenth century, with no new specimens forthcoming, let alone any observations in the wild, the species faded into obscurity. In 1901, famed zoologist Walter Rothschild had this to say on the spotted green pigeon, lumping it together with the Nicobar pigeon in Part II of his Notes on Papuan Birds:

‘It is extraordinary that the home of this bird is not yet discovered, and we suggest the possibility – although there were two specimens – that it is an abnormity.’

For a century after Rothschild’s dismissal of the bird as an abnormal Nicobar pigeon, virtually no attention was paid it. The IUCN deemed it ‘Not Recognised’ and so it might have stayed if not for the attentions of natural history author and illustrator Errol Fuller. In 2001 Fuller suggested the reason for the bird’s fall into obscurity rested largely with Rothschild’s unwillingness to consider it a distinct species. Fuller also coined a new common name for the animal: “the Liverpool pigeon”, in recognition of the only known bird’s final resting place.

Soon after, the IUCN also recognised the contentious skin as representative of a species. The Liverpool pigeon thus made an ignominious move from “Not Recognised” to “Extinct” on the Red List. The basis for the decision to list the species as extinct lies in the lack of hard evidence for the pigeon’s continued existence beyond the early 1780s.

Whilst now acknowledged once again as a distinct species, many questions about where the Liverpool pigeon truly belonged remained unanswered.

By extracting and analysing DNA from two of the bird’s feathers, the species’ story became a little less opaque. The results indicated that the Liverpool pigeon is indeed a true species, sharing a genus with the Nicobar pigeon of the Indian Ocean and South Pacific. Consequently, it was given a new binomial: Caloenas maculata. Fittingly, the test results would also make it a fairly close relative of the likewise lost and enigmatic dodo.

Nicobar pigeon

A Nicobar pigeon, the Liverpool pigeon’s closest living relative. Image Wikipedia Creative Commons, by Tomfriedel

So, with the Liverpool pigeon’s (former) place in the tree of life now apparently resolved at last, can any light be shed on where this bird once made its home? Besides the dodo, the species has two other close extinct relatives: the peculiar solitaire of Rodrigues and the Kanaka pigeon of the South Pacific. The latter species is known only from subfossils, most likely being hunted to extinction by the ancestors of the Polynesians around 500BCE. Given all the Liverpool pigeon’s closest known relatives are island dwellers, it is reasonable to think it too favoured this way of life. Tahiti has been suggested as the bird’s possible home, with stories of a similar-looking bird being recorded there in 1928, but this is far from a definitive answer.

For millions of years, the Indian Ocean and South Pacific proved an excellent home for pigeons, thought to have island-hopped from Oceania or South-East Asia, often developing terrestrial habits or even flightlessness in the process. The Liverpool pigeon appears to have taken a different evolutionary path.

Based on analysis of the World Museum’s pigeon, some hypotheses have been advanced about its ecology. It has been suggested the bird was a canopy-dweller, foraging in trees for soft fruits to eat, and thus functioning as a seed disperser within its ecosystem. It has also been proposed that this species avoided flying across open water, staying put on its island home, which may well have been small and remote.

The precise cause of the pigeon’s extinction is also mysterious. The IUCN considers it a reasonable assumption that human hunting in addition to possible predation by introduced species is likely to have ended its existence. This fate has been shared by many island birds since humans began expanding across Earth’s oceans. It is also thought likely that by the time Europeans first encountered the creature, it was already on the brink of extinction.

The species’ story now comes to its sad end. In 1851, the Earl’s taxidermied pigeon was crudely refashioned into a study skin and now forms part of the World Museum’s cabinet collection. Once a living part of an island ecosystem and a member of a strikingly diverse grouping of birds, for the last 166 years the Liverpool pigeon has belonged only in a drawer.

 

the only specimen of a Liverpool pigeon The only known Liverpool pigeon specimen. Photo by Clemency Fisher, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool; released under Creative Commons for BioMed Central.

Remember Sloane’s urania – by Matt Stanfield

‘If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world’s ecosystems would collapse.’ – Sir David Attenborough

From a human perspective, there is much about invertebrates which can be hard to relate to, or even to conceive of at all. As mammals, our instincts likely count against them. It is no great stretch for many of us to empathise with an orang utan or a wildcat – but an octopus, or a lobster? Even the word “invertebrate” implies a lesser form of life, defined by what it lacks – a backbone.

Historically, perhaps the most high-profile invertebrate grouping has been the gigantic order known as Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). These creatures are arguably quite well-known from a human perspective, by virtue of their appeal to our well-developed sense of sight. Their frequently bold and distinctive colouration has drawn our interest for millennia. One striking result of this interest has been the identification of approximately one hundred and eighty thousand individual species of butterfly and moth. For context, the total number of all vertebrate species known is below seventy thousand.

Sadly, amidst the ranks of described species of all kinds there exists a growing body of organisms which will never be seen alive again. One such is Sloane’s urania, a large moth formerly native to Jamaica. Though moths are often thought of as less brightly coloured than butterflies, this species was a glorious exception.

The large size and dazzling colour of these animals seems to have bought them to the attention of science quite quickly. The species was first described in 1776, being named in honour of the recently deceased Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection formed the basis of the British Museum. Whilst most moths are active at night, Sloane’s urania was a day flier whose beautiful wings served notice to would-be diurnal predators that it was, in fact, toxic.

Unfortunately, this moth’s natural defences would prove useless in the face of human activity. Surviving relatives of Sloane’s urania migrate periodically, after population explosions amongst their caterpillars defoliate certain areas. Consequently, their populations are not only subject to significant natural fluctuations, but they require multiple large bodies of suitable plants on which to feed. Interestingly, most adult moths do not eat at all, doing all their feeding at the larval stage and living only to mate once they emerge from their cocoons.

It is suspected that, during the late nineteenth century, when Jamaica’s lowland rainforests were being cleared for agriculture, one of this species’ key larval foodplants was lost. Urania larvae in general are picky eaters, feeding solely on a single genus of rainforest vine. Without a food supply for the next generation, extinction beckoned. Sloane’s urania was last reported in 1895 and is believed to have vanished entirely by the early years of the twentieth century.

Although six members of the Urania genus, similar in appearance and habits to Sloane’s urania, are still known to exist, this does not lessen the significance of the species’ loss. Indeed, the mere fact that Sloane’s urania is known to have gone extinct at all renders it hugely significant. Whereas it can be reasonably assumed that most of Earth’s mammal species are known to science, the same is much less true for other classes of animals, perhaps none more so than insects. Estimates of the total number of insect species stand at between six and ten million, of which around one million have been described.

The upshot of our continuing profound ignorance of so much invertebrate life is that no-one has much idea of how many species humans have driven to extinction. A 2005 study estimated that around 44,000 insect species had been driven extinct by human activity since the fifteenth century. More worrying still, in 2014 entomologists concluded that the total number of insects on Earth has dropped by about forty-five per cent since the 1970s. However, the number of documented insect extinctions in that time period stands at around seventy. Sloane’s urania is a rare insect indeed in that its passing managed to draw the attention of its nemesis.

Recent dramatic declines in bee numbers appear to have begun to alert humanity to the stupefying risk inherent in gambling with the future of invertebrate life on our planet. We would do well to remember that even the asteroid strike which ended the Dinosaur Age did not manage to cause a mass extinction amongst insects.

Matt Stanfield

What is Missing? – a memorial by Maya Lin

The mission of ‘What Is Missing’ is to create, through science-based artworks, an awareness about the present sixth mass extinction of species, connect this loss of species to habitat degradation and loss, and emphasise that by protecting and restoring habitat, we can both reduce carbon emissions and protect species. As Maya Lin’s final memorial, it asks us to look at a memorial not as a singular, static object, but as work that can exist in multiple forms and places around the world. Loss is merely the departure point for this wake up call and call to action. The What Is Missing? Foundation is equally focused on action and hope, showing individuals what they can do in their own lives to make a difference, presenting plausible scenarios for a sustainable planet, and showcasing examples of what is being done around the world. It is within our power to make a difference. Head to the website, whatismissing.net/#add-a-memory, to submit your own memory of habitat and species loss and recovery, and whatismissing.net/#what-you-can-do to find out how you can make a difference.

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