How Fast are we Pushing Animals from the Planet?

See it on Canadian Geographic’s blog HERE!

Seventy-three years ago, in the woods of northern Maine, the last confirmed eastern cougar was killed. Early last week, the United States Fish and Wildlife Services formally announced that this subspecies of puma is being added to the growing fold of officially extinct species.

Although the Canadian Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife disputes the claim, the fact remains that the demise of this cat which once prowled over 21 states is part of a growing trend in the animal kingdom.

The Sixth Extinction?
In the last five centuries 80 of 5,570 mammal species have gone extinct. Since the arrival of European settlers in Canada, more than 30 species of plant and animal have vanished from our shores. And in the last 100 years, species like the Deepwater Cisco (1952) the Newfoundland Wolf (1911) and Blue Walleye (1980s) have disappeared from Canada, and from the face of the Earth.

With numbers like these, a recent study in the science journal Nature suggests that we could be entering the sixth period of mass extinction. Previous mass extinctions, known as the ‘Big Five’ took place millions of years ago, the most well known of which arrived at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, when it is suspected a gigantic asteroid crashed into Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.

The possible sixth extinction is unique because it would be the first caused by humans and their impacts on habitat, climate change, over hunting and fishing and the spread of germs or viruses. “So far, only one to two percent of all species have gone extinct in the groups we can look at clearly,” says Anthony Barnosky, one of the study’s researchers. “So by those numbers, it looks like we are not far down the road to extinction. We still have a lot of Earth’s biota to save.”

Discovery to Disaster
At the same time as some species are going extinct, some are just being discovered. There are currently 1.9 million identified species, with between 16,000 and 18,000 new ones being discovered each year. Most of these recent finds are microscopic, but there are still places in the deep sea and the heart of the rainforest which lie shrouded in mystery.

After ten years mapping the oceans, researchers estimate that 750,000 species remain undiscovered, but that some will go extinct because of human activity before we ever get to see them.

Only a few years ago, scientists discovered hundreds of new plant, bird, butterfly, snake and monkey species in the mountains of Mozambique, a region that hadn’t been widely explored due to inhospitable terrain and decades of civil war.

The president of Paris’s Museum of Natural History, Gilles Boeuf, says that despite the number of species being discovered, there is no way to ensure we will find them all in time. “At this rate, it will take us a thousand years to record all of Earth’s biodiversity, which is probably between 15 and 30 million species, but at the rate things are going, by the end of this century, we may well have wiped out half of them, especially in tropical forests and coral reefs.”

In highly populated areas like New England where the Eastern Cougar once lived, human impact accelerates the trip down the endangered scale. “Official confirmation of the eastern cougar’s extinction is a belated warning that our ecosystems are out of whack,” says Michael Robinson from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Hopefully the Eastern Cougar’s notch on the pole of animals we’ve pushed from the planet won’t be in vain if we take it as a sign of the serious impact we’re having on those who share our world.

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