Living Planet Report 2016

The 2016 Living Planet Report has just been released by WWF. Prepare for a shocking read.

“The size and scale of the human enterprise has grown exponentially since the mid 20th century with the advent of the new geological era, the Anthropocene. The future of many living organisms is now in question.

Species populations of vertebrate animals decreased in abundance by 58% between 1970 and 2012. The most common threat to declining animal populations is the loss and degradation of habitat. Increasingly, people are victims of the deteriorating state of nature: without action the Earth will become much less hospitable. Humans have already pushed four planetary systems beyond the safe limit of their operating space. By 2012, the equivalent of 1.6 Earths was needed to provide the natural resources and services humanity consumed in that year.

To maintain nature in all of its many forms and functions and to create an equitable home for people on a finite planet, a basic understanding must inform development strategies, economic models, business models and lifestyle choices: we have only one planet and its natural capital is limited. A share understanding of the link between humanity and nature could induce a profound change that will allow all life to thrive in the Anthropocene.”


Dear Anton – by Alex Lockwood

Painting by Linnea Ryshke


Dear Anton,

I need to introduce you again. Introduce again this practice of writing to you every day for 180 days, the industrial lifespan for your species, Sus scrofa domesticus. I do it to come closer to your life. To try, at least. I began the experiment after finishing my book about pigs in industrial farming. I didn’t know happens when you finish a book in which the subjects of your work are killed. I thought about getting a tattoo of you. I felt responsible. I knew I couldn’t just leave you in the machine, treated as a machine. I needed to stay close; I couldn’t just blow you out in my head like a candle.

So here we are. We’ve got an audience. To recap, I’ve told you already in these letters about: who you are, who I am; explained—as poor as those explanations were—what happens to you in the first three weeks of birthing; about my mother, your mother; then onto philosophy, Thomas Nagel, bats, nature, nature writing, how the media represents you (badly); how I am planning to get you out of there.

Today I’m writing about extinction. Specifically, the connection between where you are, in that factory farm in Iowa, or the warehouse-like hangar in China, and the global crisis of species extinction. Extinction, Anton, is the process by which a species, animal or vegetable (and mineral?) is completely wiped out. That it no longer exists, except in memory, fossils and books. Sometimes we humans say “extinct in the wild” to mean we still imprison other individuals of that species somewhere, usually in zoos, mostly so people can stare at them. I know… All of this is alien to you, as your species is caught in an endlessly renewed hell, a regeneration of billions of individuals every year, every half a year. It’s what the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, a friend to animals, especially cats, a philosophical Doolittle—(so much in that name, Doolittle, when it comes to animals)—calls a perverse cycle of anthropocentric power, a constant re-birthing of life so we can kill it, and eat it. Eat you. And at ever growing cost.

Extinction, Anton, is relevant to your existence. Relevant, not least because of the massive numbers in which your species takes up the space of the ever dwindling numbers of other species outside the animal agriculture industry. (This is not your fault.) The question is not whether there is a link between extinction and the industrial animal agriculture that imprisons you, but rather how to make the existing bondage clearer.

Through statistics? What, by simply telling people that slaughter—the violent killing of billions of individuals from a tiny number of unlucky species—is the largest single contributing industry to the greenhouse gases causing climate change? By telling them that it is the major contributor to deforestation (91% of the Amazon clear cut for grazing and soy for feedlots) and loss of wildlife habitat? That it is the industry most responsible for water use and water pollution? That the industrial animal agriculture complex is the way we choose to prop up our growing global population’s calorific needs, even though there are (much) more sensible and sustainable means? That industrial animal agriculture is our manifest sloth and greed: producing meat and dairy that no one needs? In fact, knowing what we know, that the consumption of animal products is slowly killing us through cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, dementia…? The links are all there, Anton. But telling people doesn’t seem to work.

The species that is perhaps most surprisingly critically endangered by industrial animal agriculture, my friend, is us. We humans.

Not that that’s any comfort to you. Quicker, you say. Quicker.

I can hear the arguments against this, Anton. It’s all indirect. Industrial slaughter isn’t directly killing the white rhino. Animal agriculture isn’t directly responsible for the disappearance of the Asiatic cheetah, in the way that hunting was directly responsible for the disappearance of… oh, so many. Okay, no. Industrial animal agriculture is only directly responsible for the 80,000,000,000 (80 billion) land animals it slaughters per annum—one of whom is going to be you—and the 3,000,000,000,000 (three trillion) or so sea creatures. Mostly, they’re replaced. See you next year.

Remember your mother, Anton?

You don’t, I know. But I do.

This is where another concept may be useful: entanglement. That is, we are all entangled in mind–body­–world relations, and that what happens to each one of us can both cause and be caused by changes to the mind–body–world realities of others. Including the nonhuman other. The philosopher Lori Gruen talks about “entangled empathy” and that we need to give our “moral attention” to the other bodies with whom we are already entangled. Perhaps an example: a person who eats the body parts of another is entangled with that other, yes? Benefiting from that being’s energy? So the relation demands a moral attention, right? But when a human being eats the leg of a lamb these days, there is little moral attention given to the relation. Only economic attention. To convenience. Only the luxury of the taste. (I wrote this during #LoveLambWeek.)

Where has moral attention disappeared to, Anton? Why did we stop feeling empathy for the infant sheep whose legs we eat? There is no moral attention given today, Anton, by 98% of the world’s population, to the desires of those of you trapped in that interminable hell, where there is no living, survival is all. There is no recognition of the already existing entanglements between mind–body–world beings. And that’s because no one wants to be re-minded that there was an entanglement with not only the leg but also the mind of a young lamb, skipping with delight, bleating for its mum. No one, that is, Anton (and this is the mess we’ve got ourselves into) who wants to take direct responsibility.

Anton, I feel that I’m failing. I feel like I’m not doing justice here to the issue of convincing people of the connection between animal agriculture’s slaughter of billions, land and sea, year upon year, and that other slaughter of life: extinction. Maybe that’s because we’re all failing, Anton. Failing you, failing the Asiatic Cheetah, failing all of the red-listed creatures. Do numbers work? They’ve been shown not to. But it’s all I’ve got. Today 225,000,000 (225 million) of your domesticated brethren will be slaughtered for food; and 225,000 new humans will be added to the earth to eat that food; and 80 species will become extinct to make way. Just today. Tomorrow, again. Life shoved out by death. The monoculture of a species: homo rapiens, as John Gray calls us.

So, okay. The connection between slaughter and extinction? Or rather, the connector? Imagine it this way. In the middle you have the Great Human Baby that needs feeding if it’s to keep growing (growth is all!), its two grasping hands seeking sustenance. On one side you have a big pile of slaughtered animal products. On the other side you have a pile of those lovely wooden toys in the shape of animals, a child’s Noah’s Ark and its exotic megafauna. But the Great Human Baby needs to eat, so it grabs at either pile, indiscriminately, and like all babies, it will thrust whatever it finds into its mouth. Burger or snow leopard. Pork chop or parakeet. Cutlet or cloud forest. They’re all being consumed by the same source. Consumption here as both literal and metaphor. The shameful thing, my friend, is that we, the parents, the adults, keep shovelling the animals onto the piles, keep loading them up, so the baby can eat and eat and eat. And aged two (remember: metaphor and literal!) it is already obese. Already has diabetes and chronic heart disease.

It’s too much for me, Anton. Too much. And what have I done for you today other than depress you? You in your metal cavern, in the ammonia reek of your middle-age, the waste-stinking runnels, your wretched Iowan life. How has any of this helped you understand the connection between the extinction of species and the death that is looming for you?

Agh. I can’t give in to this helplessness. I am still looking for a way to help you escape. I know this is also what drives those who are working so hard, in conservation for example, to save individual animals who are, unlike you, part of a species not endlessly reproduced for its economic value.

Who’s better off, though? Those endangered lemurs and frogs, or you pigs? And why do conservationists still smother apple sauce on your belly and legs?

It’s a misnomer, isn’t it, Anton, this word extinction? When all we really need to call it is killing. Then perhaps we can see a little more clearly the connection between the two: industrial slaughter and the wiping out of non-economic nonhuman animals and ecosystems. Because to quibble over directness or indirectness is to simply betray an anthropocentric comfort with the question.

Oh, humans are saying, you mean the connection is us?

Oh, too miserable, Anton! Where have I gone with this?

I’ll get you out of there. Ninety four days gone; I have eight six days left. You are over half-way through your industrial lifespan (not 1/40th of your natural life expectancy) but I will use these days well. I just need to persuade 6,500,000,000 (6.5 billion) more humans that they’re already entangled with you too…


Alex Lockwood is a writer living in Newcastle and senior lecturer in the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland. He completed a PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, exploring self-identity, psychoanalysis and affect. His book The Pig in Thin Air explores the place of the body in animal advocacy, and chronicles Alex’s journey around Canada and the United States in 2014, exploring animal advocacy and the animal rights movement there. 


Who killed the Bramble Cay melomys? – by Michelle Nijhuis

Paper cut Bramble Cay melomys by Australian artist Rebecca Edwards

A brilliant article by Michelle Nijhuis for the Atlantic explains that to simply blame climate change for the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys misses the point:

This summer, the Bramble Cay melomys, a reddish-brown rodent that resembles a large mouse, made international news. In mid-June, The Guardian reported that the melomys, last seen in 2009, had been confirmed extinct in its only known habitat, a tiny, isolated coral outcrop in the narrow strait between Australia and New Guinea. “First mammal species wiped out by human-induced climate change,” the headline read. The story, and the declaration, were picked up by publications around the world.

Climate change certainly dealt a blow to the melomys, and very likely the fatal blow. In 1998, about ten acres of Bramble Cay lay above the high tide line; by 2014, only six acres remained above the tide, and rising seas had flooded the entire island several times, killing or damaging most of the succulent plants the species depended on for food. The melomys was last seen alive in 2009, and this past June, a report by three scientists to the Australia’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection concluded that there were no more melomys on Bramble Cay. The last remaining members of the species may have been simply washed away.But did climate change kill the melomys? Yes and no.
Two weeks after its initial story, The Guardian reported that Australian researchers had intended to bring a few melomys back to the mainland to start a captive breeding program. But when their surveys of Bramble Cay failed to turn up a single individual, their rescue mission ended with an obituary. “My colleagues and I were devastated,” the expedition leader told The Guardian.
That missed opportunity, says biologist John Woinarski, was the last act in a tragedy that had been unfolding for years, often in plain sight. In a new paper in Conservation Biology, Woinarski and three colleagues conduct what might be called an inquest into three recent Australian extinctions: the Christmas Island pipistrelle (a small bat), the Christmas Island forest skink (a plain brown lizard), and the melomys. These three extinctions, the authors conclude, “were predictable and most likely could have been prevented.”The pipistrelle was common on Christmas Island until the mid-1980s, but in the mid-1990s its numbers began to decline, and dropped quickly and steadily until the species went extinct in 2009. The skink started to decline at around the same time, and its last representative, nicknamed Gump, died in captivity in 2014. Both species are thought to have been done in by introduced predators, probably the giant centipede and the wolf snake. 
Woinarski argues that the centipede and the snake, much like the rising tides on Bramble Cay, were enabled for years by human neglect and inaction. Australia’s biodiversity conservation law makes no explicit commitment to preventing human-caused extinctions, so species threatened by diffuse or complex threats are often left unprotected, and the protection measures that do exist are frequently inadequate; though researchers began to document the skink’s decline in 1999, it was not officially recognized as critically endangered until 2014, four months before its extinction. The pipistrelle, like the melomys, suffered from a delayed rescue attempt: Its plight was recognized in the late 1990s, but by the time the government approved a captive breeding program, in 2009, there was only one bat left—and that bat, understandably, refused to be caught. These three species were also particularly easy to ignore: They’re small and unremarkable, and they live in some of the most remote places on the planet. They don’t play an obviously important role in their ecosystems, or occupy a unique place in evolutionary history; they’re not beloved by any particular human community or culture. Only their extinction makes them distinctive, and even that is less and less unusual: Australia has the highest rate of mammal extinctions in the world, with 30 species, including the melomys, lost in the four centuries since European colonization.

Woinarski, who lived on Christmas Island just after the extinction of the pipistrelle and during the extinction of the skink, also worked on the recovery plan for the melomys. His assessment, he says, was motivated by personal grief, and by a desire to understand what could be done differently next time. For there will be a next time: Though recent policy reforms have strengthened its national conservation law, Australia and its outlying islands have more than a thousand threatened and endangered species. Those already close to extinction include theChristmas Island shrew, the only shrew in Australia; the Western ground parrot, a shy, bright-green bird that lives on the southwestern coast; and the bridled nailtail wallaby or flashjack, a favorite prey of cats, dogs, and foxes.To say that climate change killed the Bramble Cay melomys, says Woinarski, is “accurate but shallow.” It ignores the many other environmental factors that probably led to its extinction, and it obscures the fact that humans could have saved the species—not only by slowing climate change in the first place, but also by rescuing the species from its effects. People, he emphasizes, could have prevented the extinction of the melomys. They chose not to.


Behind black bird-masks – by Mikael Vogel & Brian Williams

Brian Williams is an artist living in Columbus, Ohio, USA, and Mikael Vogel is a poet living in Berlin, Germany. They frequently collaborate on creative projects focusing on extinct and endangered animals, and will release an illustrated book of poetry in spring 2017.

This is their tribute to the extinct Hawaiian po’o-uli bird. 

Behind black bird-masks

The last three poʻo-uli
Within their three close home ranges (in ʻōhiʻa
Rain forest, on Maui), refusing to leave those, thus
Refusing to procreate in any way. Gone ex-
Tinct November 26, 2004


Hinter schwarzen Vogelmasken
Die drei letzten Poʻo-uli
In ihren drei nahen Revieren (in ʻŌhiʻa-
Regenwald, auf Maui), sich weigernd diese zu verlassen, so
Jede Fortzupflanzung verweigernd. Ausge-
Storben 26. November 2004


Poem by Mikael Vogel. Translated from German by Holden Silverfish


Some information on the po’o-uli

The po’o-uli was discovered in 1973 on the slopes of Haleakalā on the island of Maui. It was the first species of Hawaiian honeycreeper to be discovered since 1923. It was unlike other Hawaiian birds, belonging to an ancient lineage of Hawaiian honeycreepers. No other bird – living or fossil – has a structure similar to it.

By 1997, only three individuals were known to exist. In 2002, one of these, a female, was captured and taken to a male’s home range in an attempt to get them to breed. The female, however, had flown back to her own territory, which was 1.5 miles away, by the next day. There was also a ten-day expedition in 2004. The goal of this was to capture all three birds and bring them to a bird conservation centre on the island, in the hope they would produce offspring.

On September 9, 2004, one of the remaining birds, a male, was captured and taken to the Maui Bird Conservation Centre in Olinda, in an attempt to breed the bird in captivity. However, biologists could not find a mate for the male before it died on November 26, 2004.

The decline of the po’o-uli was due to habitat loss, mosquito-borne diseases, predation by pigsratscats, and small Asian mongooses, and a decline in the native tree snails that the po’o-uli relied on for food.


Bachman’s warbler – by Carrie Laben

Bachman’s warbler (Vermivora bachmanii)

Bachman’s warbler (Vermivora bachmanii), courtesy of the artist, Isabella Kirkland


Sometimes it seems as though the Bachman’s warbler was under a fairy-tale curse from the start. To become invisible, to disappear. John James Audubon never saw one alive, even though he described it for western science; his description and painting of the species were based on specimens shot and sent to him by his friend the Reverend John Bachman. So the bird was lumbered with the name of its killer. But this was not uncommon in those days.

And after that, what? It probably bred in canebrakes, dense stands of bamboo that crop up in damp southern forests, shooting skyward towards gaps in the canopy and dying off abruptly when the plants complete their life cycle. It’s not a habitat where you take one stand and preserve it in a diorama; canebrakes are wanderers, springing up in the wakes of hurricanes and collapses, dwindling when times are good for stately old trees. The Bachman’s warbler was probably a wanderer too. I’ll use the word probably a lot in this post, because the bird was never studied in depth – maybe it wasn’t so dependent on canebrakes, maybe it liked damp old-growth forests intact. At least once, in Mississippi, it nested in an upland forest. In the 1992 edition of Birds in Jeopardy, which gives the warbler a page despite acknowledging that it was possibly – probably? – extinct even then, there is the most poignant of sentences at the conclusion of the entry: “The species is so rare and poorly known that no [recovery] plans have been formulated or put into action.” Besides being sporadic, canebrakes are not friendly habitat for large clumsy mammals; tough to get through, laden with biting insects, a refuge not just for pretty birds but for snakes and pumas. A few plume hunters must have gotten in, because Birds in Jeopardy and other books that mention the warbler (always briefly, always with the caveat that not much is known) list plume hunting as a cause of the bird’s decline. Maybe a few specimens are still lurking on dusty hats in attics.

Was it always rare? That would make a good excuse for why we know so little, and maybe let us off the hook a bit; it was already in decline, it was a little Nell species just too good for this sinful earth. That’s the danger of believing in fairy-tale curses, becoming fatalistic. Except that maybe, as the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, it was actually rather common. Birds in Jeopardy says “the seventh most common migrant along the lower Suwannee River”, an oddly precise canebrake of statistic in a swampy forest of probablies. Conjecture – logging, at that point not yet a wall-to-wall devastation, had opened up more patches of light for bamboo and the bird’s breeding and increased its range, that that was actually the best it would ever get for a yellow-and-green bird with a black chin. Or something else was going on entirely.

Anyway, it declined. The last known sighting is as swampy as everything else: last specimen collected in 1949, last confirmed breeding pair in South Carolina that same year. Unlikely that they were really the last breeding pair, though, because the last photograph is from 1958 and the commonly-cited last report from a ‘reliable’ observer is also from South Carolina, in 1962, when a bird born in 1949 would have been the warbler equivalent of an Old Testament patriarch. In 1977, someone in Florida photographed what could well be an immature female Bachman’s warbler, though identification is notoriously tricky for immature warblers; in 1988 there was a report from Louisiana, the vast damp center of North American ornithological mysteries; in 2001, someone saw a bird in Congaree National Park that was convincing enough to set off an unsuccessful search by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife. And always there was Cuba, known to be the bird’s wintering ground, hidden from North American birders behind a veil of Cold War politics and therefore capable of containing a few lingering survivors of just about anything.

As the years go on, it gets harder to hope, but seems more churlish to pick a date for the tombstone. Maybe the Bachman’s warbler will live on for many more decades in the realm where the ivory-billed woodpeckers and pink-headed ducks and Eskimo curlew live, popping their head back into our everyday world just often enough to keep environmentalists hoping. But that is more fairy-tale thinking. And while fairy-tales are lovely, it’s important to recognize that the real curse here was a practical one; we never could have hoped to preserve what we didn’t bother to understand.

Carrie Laben grew up in western New York and earned her MFA at the University of Montana. She now lives in Queens. She blogs at 10,000 Birds, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such venues as Birding, The Dark, Indiana Review, Okey-Panky, and the anthology Mixed Up! In 2015 she was selected for the Anne LaBastille Memorial Writer’s Residency.


Cokinos, Christopher. Hope is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. New York: Penguin, 2009. 27.

Ehrlich, Paul, David Dobkin & Darryl Wheye. Birds in Jeopardy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992. 32-33.

Weidensaul, Scott. The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species. New York: North Point Press, 2002. 17.

Painting a Glimpse of Extinction – by Sophie Gainsley

I’ve been on a journey, accompanied by poet Harry Man (1), to memorialise Britain’s vanishing wildlife.  These creatures, along with countless others, are disregarded as we rush about our busy, hectic lives each day in concrete metropolises.  But outside in the natural, rural worlds which we so heavily depend on for our food, clothing and pretty much everything else, each individual creature is entwined in an ecosystem more complex than we know.  Many are disappearing before we can catalogue and study them – a process critical to learning how to protect them.  Every single one, from microscopic bugs, fungi and the green slime that clings to rocks, to bigger creatures like birds and mammals, are part of a global issue – a mass extinction, the extent of which is hard to grasp.

‘Finders Keepers’

Image: ‘Starry Sky’ from ‘Finders Keepers’ illustration by Sophie Gainsley

Our capitalist, greed-fuelled, unconscious actions of the past centuries have set in motion what scientists are calling ‘The Sixth Extinction’. Put concisely by New York writer Elizabeth Kolbert: ‘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.’

It is hard to believe this fact, living in a man-made world in our built-up, closed-in cities and towns. But it has been revealed by scientists, that we “…have only identified about 10-15 percent, at most, of existing species. Most types of life are unknown, rendering the great dying crisscrossing the globe eerily invisible to human eyes and silent to human ears,” as Tikkun Magazine states. (2)

The main things which are driving species over the edge ( -some estimates calculate that we are losing up to 200 species a day -) are mass habitat destruction such as deforestation and pollution (3). Trees are being burned and logged at a scary rate. 80% of the world’s forests have already been destroyed and every 2 seconds, an area the size of a football field is destroyed. (4)

Return of the Humpback

But it’s not all doom and gloom!  There are countless amazing conservation projects all around the word and a myriad of dazzling success stories.

Image: ‘Hello World’ illustration by Sophie Gainsley

When first observed by mariners, the Humpback whale was named ‘The Merry Whale’.   Not so merry is the fact that their curiosity and fearlessness made them easy targets for Whale Hunters.  Add to this, their predictable migration routes and what you were left with was a marine massacre.  Humpback populations were ravaged across the globe, so much so, that when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling of Humpbacks in 1966, there were only 5,000 left.  This number may sound like a lot,  but it was estimated in an study published by Global Conservation (5) that Humpback populations were reduced by up to 90% of their original size. There were only a few hundred Humpbacks left in North Atlantic waters, where many traditionally feed on the rich marine ecology during the Spring and Summer.


Advice Whale: poem by Harry Mann, image by Sophie Gainsley

Since then, the Humpback has made an impressive comeback.  They are now 80,000 strong worldwide and went from being labelled ‘endangered’ in 1988 to being considered of ‘least concern’ as recently as 2008.  This is just one of thousands of conservation success stories well worth celebrating!

Our project, Finders Keepers (6), created by Harry Man, aims to also raise awareness of conservation taking place all over the UK.  This includes the protection of habits such as our ancient woodlands and hedgerows which are threatened by the increase of agriculture and which creatures rely on.

The Toothed Threadwort, the Bastard Balm and the Wormwood Moonshiner

As I scrolled down the long list of endangered UK species, some of the more imaginative and entertaining names jumped out.  Among them, I found the quaint ‘Grizzled Skipper’, the ‘Grayling’ and ‘Bastard Balm’, all imaginative names for different butterfly species.  Meanwhile an unsuspecting algae goes by the name of the ‘Toothed Threadwort’ and a ribbed black beetle, the ‘Wormwood Moonshiner’.  Even in the most unlikely of places, the British sense of humour prevails and reminds us of our abundant imagination and creativity.  It is these traits and our ability for forethought and planning which have enabled us to survive against the odds and thrive in most environments across Earth until today.  There is much hope that these same traits will enable us to undo some of the damage we have caused and turn back the clock, to conserve threatened species. Or in the words of David Attenborough, as he beautifully concluded the BBC ‘Planet Earth’ series; “Our planet is still full of wonders and as we explore we gain not only understanding but power. It’s not just the future of the whale that today lies in our hands, it’s the survival of the natural world on all parts of the living planet. We can now destroy or we can cherish. The choice is ours.”


Image: ‘The Woods’ from ‘Finders Keepers’ Illustration by Sophie Gainsley










The Passenger’s Prayer – by Megan Hollingsworth


If I be anyone in this life

let me be a messenger

let me write beauty on the sky

let me write a love letter

so wide and deep and long

that it turns day to night

forcing men and women to look up.

Let me write a reminder of what is great and what is small

and if my being is not enough,

if my death is the only reminder of man’s power to take life

let me die; let this love letter

exist in memory, born of experience


Poem written by Megan Hollingsworth/ ex·tinc·tion wit·ness in 2014 and dedicated to the passenger pigeon on the centenary of its extinction. The image is a still from Martha’s Farewell,  a film tribute to Martha by Megan, also in 2014.

The tragedy of lost species – by Brian McKenzie

London-based artist and printmaker Brian McKenzie shares his latest project, specially completed in memory of the thylacine and for Lost Species Day:

Recently I have had the opportunity to make some new specimen artworks as part of a year long initiative commemorating the death of the last thylacine. The thylacine was a marsupial. Marsupials are wonderfully weird mammals whose young are born in a highly unformed embryo-like state.

Thylacine specimen joey, cloning trial 1 – 2 days old

The young emerge from their mothers, then grapple and clamber with overly large forelimbs to the distinctive marsupial pouch where they find sustenance and develop.


Thylacine trial 2 – 6 days old

The Thylacine became extinct 80 years ago when on September 7th 1936, ‘Benjamin’ died of neglect, locked out of his sheltered sleeping quarters in Hobart Zoo, Australia. I have speculated about what might happen should science try to reintroduce the long-lost beast using cloning technology.

thylacine-puggle-3Thylacine trial 7 – 14 days old

I have made several thylacine clone attempts. And because these malformed, ill-bred specimens are in jars, dead and preserved, we must presume that the scientists found the tasks beyond their means. The task has proved to be too complex and difficult and is way beyond them. They have failed.
 Two views of trial number 11, having survived for 21 days
The way I create these beastly specimens is by using rubber and carefully crafted, complicated inside-out moulds. One inherent factor with this process is that the final outcome (when the skin is reversed and rolled over itself) manifests unpredictable peculiarities and flaws giving the creature surprising, odd misshapen characteristics and features.
 Longest surviving creature; perished at 1 month and 1 day
I liken these errors and foibles to the struggles encountered when modern science, expecting to fully comprehend nature, finds that things do not always go according to plan. The message I’m wanting to project is that it is far better to preserve wondrousness than to expect to be able to pick up the pieces later.

Museums – The Endangered Dead. By Christopher Kemp

We found Christopher Kemp’s terrific article dated February 2015 in Nature, the weekly online science journal. It shines a light on the plight of museums around the world and on their essential role in recording biodiversity and preventing future extinctions. Christopher has kindly shared with us additional photographs to accompany the extract we print here:

Across the world, natural-history collections hold thousands of species awaiting identification. In fact, researchers today find many more novel animals and plants by sifting through decades-old specimens than they do by surveying tropical forests and remote landscapes. An estimated three-quarters of newly named mammal species are already part of a natural-history collection at the time they are identified. They sometimes sit unrecognized for a century or longer, hidden in drawers, half-forgotten in jars, misidentified, unlabelled.

These collections are becoming increasingly valuable thanks to newly developed techniques and databases. Through DNA sequencing, digital registries and other advances, existing collections can be interrogated in new ways, revealing more about Earth’s biodiversity, and how quickly it is disappearing.

But just as the collections are growing more valuable, they are falling into decline. With many institutions struggling to cope with significant budget cuts, some collections are being neglected, damaged or lost altogether. And the scientists who study them are also threatened as their positions disappear.


“This is the repository of all life that we know has existed,” says Michael Mares, director of the Sam Noble Museum at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, and past president of the American Society of Mammalogists. “If you want to go back and do a survey of the mammals of Kuala Lumpur or something 30 years or 40 years ago, you can’t go back,” he says. “You have to go to the collections to do it.”

In 1758, with the publication of the encyclopaedic Systema Naturae, Carl Linnaeus attempted to classify nature — an effort that continues today at almost 8,000 natural-history collections around the world. The United States alone holds an estimated 1 billion specimens, and the global figure may reach 3 billion. The average institution displays only about 1% or less of its store. The rest — often hundreds of thousands of specimens — is catalogued and stored away, inaccessible to the public.

The collections are overseen by a dwindling corps of managers and curators — mainly taxonomists who describe species, and systematists who study the relationship between organisms. The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, had 39 curators in 2001. Today, there are just 21. At present, there is no curator of fishes — an enormously diverse class of animal. Neither The Field Museum nor the AMNH — which hold two of the largest collections in the world — has a lepidopterist on staff, even though both collections contain hundreds of thousands of butterfly and moth specimens. Similarly, the National Museum of Natural History has seen a steady drop in the number of curators — from a high of 122 in 1993 to a low of 81 last year.

The decline is not limited to the United States. “The situation in the United Kingdom is the same, or worse,” says Paolo Viscardi, chair of the UK-based Natural Sciences Collections Association and a curator at the Horniman Museum in London. Commonly, a museum will restructure its staff, replacing three or four curatorial positions with a single collections manager, and sometimes an assistant. That manager might cover every discipline, from contemporary art to the natural sciences.

Museum staff and researchers have a name for the barriers that slow down species discovery: the taxonomic impediment. And one measure of the taxonomic impediment is the lag time — the gap between when a new species is first collected and when it is identified. Currently, the average lag time is 21 years2.


It is not clear whether that lag is increasing, but it often stretches much longer than the average. In April 1856, Henry Clay Caldwell of the United States Navy found a large, fruit-eating bat on the Samoan island of Upolu. The specimen currently resides at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and details of the find are now scarce: a few faded, hand-written descriptors on a box, a skull and a fragment of discoloured skin. In 2009, Kristofer Helgen, a mammal curator at the Smithsonian Institution, held the skull up to the light and realized it was an unknown species. More than 150 years after it was first collected, he named the species Pteropus allenorum — the small Samoan flying fox3. The species is already extinct on the island.


Researchers say that such work is crucial for understanding biodiversity and how it is being threatened. “We are in the middle of a biodiversity crisis, and collections-based institutions have a unique role in society to document that biodiversity,” says Quentin Wheeler, a taxonomist and president of the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York in Syracuse. “When we only know 10–20% of the species, we’re at a huge disadvantage to detect changes in the environment, whether it’s species extinctions or introductions or whatever.”


Christopher Kemp is a scientist and writer in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His book on species discovery and natural history collections, titled The Lost Species, will be published in 2017.

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