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.

Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2017 – Call for participants

Earth is thought to be in the early stages of a Sixth Mass Extinction, caused by the actions of a single species: our own. November 30th is a chance to learn and tell the stories of species and habitats lost to human activity, and to renew commitments to protecting our planet’s biodiversity.

Recent sharp declines in the population of pollinators, on whose environmental contribution so many species rely, have been receiving significant attention. In light of this, the focus of Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2017 will be on pollinators. These are animals which move pollen from the male to the female part of a flower, thus fertilising it. Well-known pollinators include bees, butterflies and moths. Certain birds and mammals are also important pollinators, notably bats and hummingbirds. There are of course many animals besides these which perform this vital ecological function.

Some pollinators such as the small Mauritian flying fox are already extinct at human hands, with swathes of others being critically endangered or feared lost e.g. Franklin’s bumblebee.

Small Mauritian flying fox

The Lost Species Day website will be hosting extinction and biodiversity loss-themed posts in the run-up to Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2017. We seek contributions in any medium, and stories to share online. Extinction-related visual art, creative writing, historical accounts and artefacts are all welcome. These will be shared on our website and social media outlets, in addition to partner projects’ channels.

We also call for artists, companies, schools and communities to hold memorial events around November 30th 2017. These could take the form of processions, “funerals” or participatory events marking the extinction of pollinator species and/or the ongoing threats which human activity poses to surviving pollinators. Alternatively, you can focus on any lost or disappearing species or place which you wish to. The Lost Species Day initiative welcomes all participants, regardless of how they want to acknowledge contemporary extinction and biodiversity loss. If you’re looking for inspiration, our website features examples of some of last year’s events.

Please contact persephone@onca.org.uk with proposals for the website, or at any time to let us know about events you are planning.

Featured image: Bombus by artist Eti Meacock. Photo by Abi Horn

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.

Responding to Loss in Nature – by Daniel Hudon

How do we as citizens and writers respond to loss in the natural world? Since I began to write my book, Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals (now available), several years ago, loss in nature has been frequently on my mind. I gave my first ever poetry workshop on this theme at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival last weekend, and judging by how early the session filled up (soon after the schedule was announced, back in April), people are hungry to engage with the topic.

What have we lost? I asked the participants at the beginning of the session. They answered:

  • fireflies
  • honeybees
  • the flight of the monarch
  • coral reefs
  • clean water
  • the night sky
  • the sounds of nature

and more.

A formidable list, which I supplemented with elephants, tigers, rhinos, pangolins, sharks, orang utans, bluefin tuna, songbirds, amphibians, mangroves, wetlands, neighbourhood trees, sea grass beds, glaciers, mountain tops, and diversity in nature (see the work of Bernard Krause).

Our task as writers is to engage with challenging issues and I would love to see poets take on loss in nature more frequently. Whether to grieve and lament, honour and eulogise, forewarn and remind (not to mention rant and rave!), our responses in poetry can help others process their own feelings regarding environmental change. Look at Mary Oliver’s poem, Lead . After the two inciting incidents (the loons dying over the winter and the friend’s description of one in its death throes) she folds in all the things she loves about loons – the things we all love, including its wild and uncanny call. Her response is our inspiration, a heartbreak that reminds us not to withdraw but to engage.  “Here is a story/ to break your heart”  she begins. And she ends the poem with:

I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

Without this frame, the poem would be incomplete.

Historically, loons nested in Massachusetts but were extirpated in the late 19th century. In 1975, a pair of loons was discovered nesting at Quabbin Reservoir. Today, there are approximately 32 nesting pairs of loons on 14 different lakes, ponds and reservoirs in the Commonwealth. Loons are listed on the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act list as a Species of Special Concern. In general they require 1000 acres of water per nesting pair, islands for nesting and limited human disturbance, which makes the Quabbin Reservoir ideal.

However, loons are being poisoned by ingesting lead fishing gear – hence the title of Mary Oliver’s poem – this is the leading cause of mortality of loons in New England. They do this either by eating the minnows used as bait, then swallowing the hook, line, and sinker or by scooping lead sinkers off the bottom when they ingest small pebbles. Lead sinkers and lead weights less than one ounce are now banned in all inland lakes in Massachusetts in an attempt to curb the problem.

We had a lively discussion about the poem and it seems I could have based my entire session on it. But we also looked at a handful of other poems, chosen from Earth Shattering , a terrific anthology of ecopoems edited by Neil Astley, The Dire Elegies: 59 Poets on Endangered Species of North America, the Amsterdam QuarterlyThe Lost Species Day website and Canary: A Literary Journal of the Environmental Crisis.

While journalists and scientists have to tell stories and present evidence when they write about loss in nature, poets have an advantage in being able to draw from seemingly unrelated events – or from their own experience — in order to evoke particular feelings.

One of the shortest poems we looked at was Condor from The Dire Elegies, by Massachusetts poet Susan Edwards Richmond:

When there is no sky left                                                       
big enough                                                                                
to hold that bird,                                                                    
 let it die.                                                                                                                                                                                          

Then dig my grave close by. 

So terse, and yet so evocative at the same time. I love the prophetic voice she adopts in the first section of the poem. My hunch is that she took a simple detail like the ability of condors to soar, a detail that she loved, and turned it inside out to make it sound fresh and authoritative. Her real response follows in the last line  Then dig my grave close by. As one of the workshop participants said, the success of the condor is our success, and its failure, should that occur, will be our failure too.

In a writing exercise, we tried to get at the prophetic voice she uses in the first section, but we didn’t have time to share responses. Still, I feel we accomplished a lot in that one hour frame. My blurb on the festival website promised, “By challenging ourselves to engage important environmental problems, you’ll come away both with new material and with renewed connection to the natural world.” Ambitious, to be sure. But if only it were that easy to connect with nature! Nevertheless, given the engagement and energy of the participants and the response to the theme, I’m looking forward to doing more such workshops soon.

Daniel Hudon is an author of short fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He is also an educator, working as a lecturer in astronomy, physics, maths, and writing at colleges in the Boston area. Readers can follow his recent writing on the topics of species reduction, ecology, and environmental literature, at his website. His book about the biodiversity crisis, Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader, is now available for pre-order here: http://penandanvil.com/brief-eulogies/ 

Connect with him on Twitter @daniel_hudon.

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

The last Scottish wildcat? – by Helen Douglas

The last Scottish Wildcat is about to be exterminated – because developers are chasing windfarm subsidies.

This week The Herald carried a story about the wildcat queen that lives on the hillside opposite my cottage, where I am a shepherd.  She has already been ousted from the den where she reared a kitten two seasons ago, when quarry was excavated to create hard-standing for a single wind turbine.  Scottish Natural Heritage did not come out of that smelling of roses, as the developers flouted recommendations for wildcat protection on a number of occasions, and the response was along the lines of ‘O dear, perhaps we should have given our advice earlier, but now we’ve left it too long and it’s too late – the wildcat won’t be around now so we’ll not do anything about it.’  There was no ‘policing’ and penalty or even warning was issued to the landowner.

This time, there are seven turbines to be erected on the adjacent slope – where we have captured the same queen on night camera.  And Scottish Natural Heritage has omitted its previous advice to ‘avoid activity during the breeding season, March – August inclusive.’ However, Scottish Wildlife Trust HAS asked Perth and Kinross Council to impose this condition.  But so far, there has been no response.

We are petitioning Perth and Kinross Council to include this protective condition.  One breeding season for one female could be the writing on the tombstone for the species, felis sylvestris sylvestris.

Scottish Natural Heritage is playing the popularity game with the developers, and saying that wind farms won’t destroy too much habitat (though earlier I have them on record as saying they don’t know enough about HOW much habitat a wildcat does require ). They are concentrating on cross-breeding with feral cats as being the biggest threat to the species.  When, however, there is evidence of an apparently ‘pure’ wild cat on our hill, shouldn’t they be doing all they can to protect her, on all fronts?

It may come to camping out in front of the diggers… Is anyone going to join me?  Or at least bring me a flask of tea?  I’ve never done anything like this – so please advise me or support me. Please, if you have not already done so, would you sign the petition to Perth and Kinross Council?  It can be found by using the link below.

http://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/protect-scottish-wildcat-from-industrial-activity

Helen Douglas (- I cannot check email regularly while I am lambing sheep in a remote area during May – but would appreciate help/advice and will reply when I do have internet access!) puffball@tiscali.co.uk

Read more on the story.

 

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.

https://www.facebook.com/whatismissing/

@WhatIsMissing_