Lost and Gone Forever–The List?
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 7, 2011
My “Specimens” column for this week in The New York Times is about species that have gone extinct over the past 30 years. So it occurred to me to make something like my Wall of the Dead–A Memorial to Fallen Naturalists, but for lost plants and animals.
Then I realized I would go insane doing it.
And also get very depressed. The estimate I have heard is that 30,000 species are now disappearing each year, most without ever having been discovered. At the risk of seeming sentimental, it makes me think of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” where he tries to imagine the lost potential of the rude country folk–the “mute, inglorious” Miltons– now buried “beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade”:
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.
That line about the yew-tree is a nice coincidence. Like a lot of species now vanishing, yews were deemed worthless, except for ornamental purposes. Then in the 1970s, researchers discovered that taxol, from yews, was a powerful anti-cancer drug. It now saves and extends the lives of tens of thousands of people who would otherwise have died. In purely commercial terms, a very crude way to value a species, taxol is now a $1.6 billion a year product.
But almost none of the plants now rapidly going extinct has been studied to see if they might offer such benefits.
I think the best thing I can do here is collect resources on extinct and threatened species. Here’s a start:
ARKive is a unique global initiative gathering the very best films and photographs of the world’s threatened species into one centralized digital library free to all at www.arkive.org
Barrow, Mark V., Nature’s Ghosts (Chicago), about extinction in America.
Conniff, Richard, The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth (Norton, 2011), includes chapters on the rise of the science of extinction.
Eldridge, Niles, “The Sixth Extinction” article
Flannery, Tim and Peter Schouten A Gap in Nature. A handsomely illustrated collection of some of what we have lost, published by William Heinemann (2001).
Maas, Peter, “The Sixth Extinction” web site
Quammen, David. The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. (Scribner)
Sartore, Joel. Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species (National Geographic)
Wikipedia has a collection of extinct species lists here.
More to come. Please send your suggestions.