The study focused on species of snails, of which 325 species have been identified as being native to Hawaii. The conclusion was alarming, to say the least. 15 species of snails were identified as being still alive. The study has fueled fears among some scientists that the Earth is in the beginning stages of the Sixth Extinction.
“The Sixth Extinction” is the title of a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Elizabeth Kolbert (2).
The title comes from the fact that five mass extinction events have taken place during the Earth’s history, caused by natural events (3).
The most famous extinction event took place 65 million years ago when an asteroid struck the region around the Yucatan, creating a firestorm and a years-long shroud of smoke that killed the dinosaurs, among numerous other species of animals.
Sixth Extinction and Critics
According to NBC News (4), the so-called “sixth extinction” is taking place because of human activity. Population growth, deforestation, industrialization, and climate change caused by humans are combining to kill off species at a rate far beyond what ordinarily takes place, 100 times as much according to some estimates.
If left unchecked, so the theory goes, the biodiversity of the Earth will become compromised, and the continued existence of human life on Earth will be threatened. The theory is being advanced by a number of peer-reviewed scientific studies previous to the University of Hawaii concentrated on vertebrate species, mammals and reptiles and the like.
The theory has its critics. A piece in the National Review noted that one of the authors of a study sounding the alarm for the sixth extinction is Paul Ehrlich (5). Ehrlich is infamous for being the author of 1968’s “The Population Bomb” that predicted the end of the human race due to overpopulation starting in the 1970s.
The development of agricultural and other technologies combined with a lower than expected growth of worldwide population rendered Ehrlich’s alarmist predictions so much bunk. The suspicion, therefore, is that the sixth extinction is just the latest doomsday scenario that Ehrlich has glommed onto.
An article in National Geographic notes that some doubt still exists about the significance of the so-called sixth extinction (6). One problem is that the sheer number of animal and plant species have yet to be identified. Therefore what is the “background” rate of species extinction as opposed to the elevated rate caused by humans cannot be determined accurately.
Recreating Extinct Species
Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish economist who writes frequently on environmental issues, has opined that while the rate of species extinction “seems plausible” the significance being touted for the long-term viability of the Earth may be overblown. The process of mass extinction is bound to last over several hundred years. Before it reaches a crisis, according to Lomborg, humans will find ways to counteract the extinction process.
What sort of measures could humans take to slow down the rate of species extinction? One thing that could be undertaken would be to restore habitats for animals and plants that have been destroyed or compromised by human activity. Forests can be replanted. So-called “dead zones” in the oceans can be restored.
Scientists have come up with a concept called “de-extinction” (7). The idea is that, by using cloning and DNA manipulation, species of plants and animals that have gone extinct can be brought back. Many scientists have contemplated how to use these techniques to bring back the passenger pigeon or the woolly mammoth. The “Jurassic Park” films depict an effort to bring back the dinosaurs that goes terribly wrong.
An effort to recreate extinct species and reintroduce them to the environment would be a massive undertaking that would have to proceed carefully. The effort would require a keen understanding of how species interact with one another and with the environment. But the prospect provides hope that what humans have caused, humans can rectify.
References & Image Credits:
(1) University of Hawaii
(2) The Sixth Extinction
(3) TSW: Are We on the Verge of Another Mass Extinction
(4) NBC News
(5) National Review
(6) National Geographic
(7) Wikipedia: De-extinction
(8) Wikipedia: Passenger Pigeon