At the August meeting of Carpinteria Birdwatchers we talked…

Thursday, August 22nd, 2019

At the August meeting of Carpinteria Birdwatchers we talked about extinction. I wanted to share this video about the effort to save endangered tree snails in Hawaii, but we ran out of time in the meeting so I’m putting a link to it here (and copying it to my Carp Without Cars blog) so attendees can see it.

Other links from the meeting:

The Last of Its Kind — Ed Yong’s piece from The Atlantic on the same topic

Planet of Weeds — David Quammen’s 1998 essay on mass extinction

Reposted from

keithcurrypochy: The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus…

Monday, November 6th, 2017


The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus) was recently featured on the cover of Audubon Magazine. This sparrow is on the brink of extinction and likely will be extinct in the wild in the next year or two. There is currently a captive breeding program that is successfully breeding the sparrows but it is unknown is they will ever be able to reintroduce them back into the wild. The sparrow requires dry palmetto prairie, an ecosystem found only in South-Central Florida that has been decimated by human development. I saw these two individuals in 2015 at Three Lakes WMA. I spent many early mornings on the prairies of Central Florida listening for the buzzing call of the grasshopper sparrow without much luck. On one outing I stumbled across biologists who were surveying the population and with them caught my first glimpse of a small blur on an expansive landscape. I returned to the same spot a month later and sat quietly in the burnt grass and palmetto as the sun peaked over the horizon. l was luckily enough to see two males perch and sing their song that announces their territory. That experience will probably be the last one I have with the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow.

Three Lakes WMA, FL

Reposted from

Ash Forests After Emerald Ash Borers Destroy Them –

Friday, July 4th, 2014

Ash Forests After Emerald Ash Borers Destroy Them –

The first thing you should know: The adult emerald ash borer is beautiful. Isolated in an artfully composed macro photo, its shimmering exoskeleton is breathtaking.

The second thing you should know: Unwittingly airlifted by humans into an environment from which it had been evolutionarily isolated, the emerald ash borer is simply following its God/Darwin-given imperative when it destroys the Northeastern ash forest.

The third thing you should know: The novel ecosystem that emerges from that destruction will not be a sterile lunar landscape. It will include many living things forming a deeply wonderful “nature.” Our descendants will walk through that landscape appreciating its non-human wonders even as some of them are aware of the role humans played in defining it.

The fourth thing you should know: Even so, something will have been lost.

This topic comes up every time I do a docent tour at the marsh. Much of the effort of restoring habitat is weeding out nonnative invasive plants. Remove the nonnative plants and you give the native plants a chance to survive. Help the native plants and you help the insects that co-evolved with them, and the insectivorous birds that co-evolved with the insects, and the parasites that live on all of them, and so on up and down and out through the multitude of layers that build up when life has a chance to operate in relatively stable conditions across evolutionary timescales.

A metaphor I’ve used to try to describe it is a piece of music. The organisms that co-evolve to form a natural community have built up over millions of years, gradually adding notes to a complex symphony that is rich and harmonious. Introducing a nonnative species in that setting is like bringing in a Jimi Hendrix solo in the middle of a Brahms concerto. It’s not that the Hendrix solo is bad. But it’s out of place, discordant. The other instruments can’t compete. The Hendrix solo gets louder, its amplification drowning out the gentle notes that had been providing its counterpoint. One by one, other instruments go quiet. Eventually the Hendrix solo may exhaust itself, continuing with the volume turned down. Things stabilize, and a new equilibrium is reached. But the overall musical landscape is poorer, less diverse, than it was before.

Over time it can build up again. The process of extinction and speciation continues. The emerald ash borer’s destruction of the ash forest is just one part of a much larger piece of music. There have been five great extinctions in the history of earth, and the fact that we’re currently engineering a sixth isn’t some huge tragedy, at least from a sufficiently detached perspective. It’s just the end of one movement, which will lead to the start of another, in which the music gradually swells as it plays toward its inevitable, much more distant, conclusion.

But on the much briefer timescale on which humans live their lives, it’s a loss.

Reposted from

“Let’s start by imagining a fine Persian carpet and a hunting knife. The carpet is twelve feet…”

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

Let’s start by imagining a fine Persian carpet and a hunting knife. The carpet is twelve feet by eighteen, say. That gives us 216 square feet of continuous woven material. Is the knife razor-sharp? If not, we hone it. We set about cutting the carpet into thirty-six equal pieces, each one a rectangle, two feet by three. Never mind the hardwood floor. The severing fibers release small tweaky noises, like the muted yelps of outraged Persian weavers. Never mind the weavers. When we’re finished cutting, we measure the individual pieces, total them up — and find that, lo, there’s still nearly 216 square feet of recognizably carpetlike stuff. But what does it amount to? Have we got thirty-six nice Persian throw rugs? No. All we’re left with is three dozen ragged fragments, each one worthless and commencing to come apart…

An ecosystem is a tapestry of species and relationships. Chop away a section, isolate that section, and there arises the problem of unraveling.

David Quammen, Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction

Reposted from

rorschachx: The threatened island fox (Urocyon littoralis),…

Sunday, December 29th, 2013


The threatened island fox (Urocyon littoralis), numbering less than 100, can only be found on the Channel Islands of California | image by George H.H. Huey

Fun fact #1: Island foxes are really small. They’re basically the size of a house cat. Also: adorable-looking. :-)

Fun fact #2: This information is out of date. The “numbering less than 100” number refers to the low point in the fox population, which occurred around 2000. As of 2010 there were more than 1,700 island foxes in the wild, and the number is higher now. See:

Basically, island foxes are the poster child for successful intervention to save a critically endangered species.

Fun fact #3: I grew up visiting the Channel Islands on sailboats, and have seen island foxes in the wild several times. The first time was in 1980, when I was 18. A friend of mine and I were throwing a frisbee on the beach at Coches Prietos Cove on Santa Cruz Island when an island fox came out of the brush and sat on its haunches watching us from about 50 feet away. After a few minutes I flicked the frisbee in its direction, thinking it would run off, but it didn’t. It just sat there watching the frisbee until it came to a stop, trotted over and sniffed it, then trotted away.

My most-recent sighting of an island fox in the wild was in the summer of 2011. I was hiking by myself along the dirt road that leads north from that same cove (Coches Prietos), and had stopped to sit in a shady spot when an island fox emerged from the brush and crossed the road about 50 feet away from me. I’m pretty sure it was aware of my presence, because it looked right at me, but it seemed unconcerned.

In each of those fox sightings the animals displayed island tameness, in which island species lose their fear of predators when those predators are absent from their island habitats. This in turn makes them vulnerable to extinction when human activities introduce new predators. That’s exactly what happened with the island fox.

European sailors in the 1700s and 1800s introduced pigs to the Channel Islands, which provided a potential food source for golden eagles. The endemic (fish-eating) bald eagle population of the islands kept the golden eagles away, but in the late twentieth century, when the introduction of DDT into the Southern California ocean had led to a decline in fish-eating species like the bald eagle, the golden eagles were able to move in. Unfortunately, the foxes’ island tameness (including their shift to being active during the daytime, as opposed to the nocturnal habits of mainland foxes) made them easy prey for the golden eagles.

The island fox recovery effort has involved a number of interlocking pieces: banning DDT, removing nonnative pigs, removing golden eagles and reintroducing bald eagles, vaccinating island foxes against canine distemper (probably introduced to the islands by human visitors with unvaccinated pets; thank you, Jenny-McCarthy pet owners), and captive breeding.

It’s encouraging that a charismatic species like the island fox can be saved from extinction once we figure out the details of what’s going on and make a sufficient effort. On the other hand, the fox’s recovery is a rare outlier in the context of the ongoing Anthropocene mass extinction.

Reposted from

paleoillustration: Dodo by Peter Schouten “The Dodo’s external…

Sunday, June 9th, 2013


Dodo by Peter Schouten

“The Dodo’s external appearance is evidenced only by paintings and written accounts from the 17th century. Because these vary considerably, and because only a few sketches are known to have been drawn from live specimens, its exact appearance in life remains a mystery.” Wikipedia

The dodo wasn’t the first species lost in the current wave of mass extinction, but as David Quammen talks about in his beautiful book Song of the Dodo, it was the first time that an extinction was widely recognized as having happened as a result of human activity.

I love that book. More than any other, it changed the way I view the world.

Reposted from