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In My Words: 'Looking back at species lost'

Endangered Species Day 2012 provided Associate Professor Jeffrey Coker a moment to reflect on how human actions can harm biodiversity.

Associate Professor Jeffrey S. Coker

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The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News and the Gaston Gazette via the Elon University Writers Syndicate.

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Looking back at species lost
By Jeffrey S. Coker - jcoker@elon.edu

As we celebrate Endangered Species Day 2012, we’d be wise to remember all that we’ve already lost. Our wildlife is profoundly different from what it once was.

For example, picture a beautiful, bright green parakeet with patches of yellow, orange and red feathers. It often travels in a large flock of dozens or even hundreds of companions. Where would you expect to find such a parakeet? The Amazonian jungles, perhaps, or the islands of the South Pacific?

Try North Carolina.

The bird was the Carolina parakeet, scientifically known as Conuropsis carolinensis, the only parrot native to the United States. It was once abundant throughout the eastern United States and, if humans had made different choices, it would still be here today. The last one died in captivity in 1918 in the Cincinnati Zoo.

This bird’s ecology made it very susceptible to human influences. It roosted in hollow trees, and so it required old-growth forests for breeding. It was also hunted for its feathers to decorate hats and other objects. Farmers killed large numbers of them because the birds damaged crops, especially apples and other fruits.

Its ultimate downfall may have been its social behavior. Apparently, it was unafraid of humans and was easy to approach. Then, when one was shot, others would circle the dead or wounded bird, allowing a hunter to kill an entire flock in a matter of minutes.

Over the course of several generations, humans drove the Carolina parakeet from dominance to complete extinction. Today, very few North Carolinians even know they existed.

Why do people in the United States, Europe, and other developed countries often associate large, colorful, and wondrous animals with other parts of the world? The unfortunate reality is that many of the most magnificent animals in their region have already been exterminated or driven into faraway refuges.

It is difficult to imagine what North America was like when humans first arrived on the continent more than 15,000 years ago. There was a coast-to-coast wilderness that included woolly mammoths, mastodons, camels, saber-toothed cats, musk ox, tapirs, peccaries, giant ground sloths, buffaloes, red foxes, mountain lions and grizzly bears. Along the coastlines were walruses, whales, penguins, dolphins, sea turtles, otters, seals, sea lions, and other large fish and aquatic mammals.

Hundreds of millions of animals once roamed everywhere in North America. To envision it, replace every car in the landscape with a car-sized animal.

In recent centuries, ecosystems around the world have changed in even more profound ways. Thousands of plants and animals have gone extinct, and there are currently tens of thousands more considered threatened or endangered. Extinction rates today are about a thousand times higher than the average extinction rate across geologic time.

As a society, we can save other species by preserving as much natural habitat as possible. We can also consume less, slow climate change, stop the overharvesting of fish and wildlife, reduce pollution, and slow the spread of invasive species. All of these things are as good for humans as they are for other species.

On May 18, 2012, as we mark Endangered Species Day, in memory of what we’ve already lost, let’s recommit to passing along our natural heritage to future generations.

Jeffrey S. Coker is an associate professor of biology at Elon University and author of the new book Reinventing Life: A Guide to Our Evolutionary Future.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
5/21/2012 1:54 PM