Nature editor Peter Cooper contemplates the apathy of humanity in the face of continual species loss.
Did you know an entire species went extinct just over a month ago? A perfect product of millions of years worth of evolutionary moulding via natural selection, now vanished to the abyss of non-existence never to be seen in the cosmos again? Something far more precious than any great temple or artwork for the simple fact it couldn’t be recreated, no matter how hard we tried?
To be honest, I didn’t until this week. And that’s speaking as a lifelong zoologist who generally has more interest in the affairs of the natural world than anything our species gets up to.
Ecnomiohyla rabborum (or Rabb’s fringe-limbed treefrog if you want to speak a mouthful in English), we hardly knew ye. Discovered by science in 2005, first described in 2007. At the same time the last one was heard calling in the wild, the entirety of the species was taken into captivity.
It was a safety measure in the face of its isolated distribution and the subsequent apocalyptic threat of chytrid fungus. This fast-spreading organism has already plummeted the numbers of other amphibians; sometimes wiping them out completely. Conservationists hoped this same fate wouldn’t befall the Rabbs, but they showed about as much sexual interest in each other as Celestine monks. By the time the last female of the species died at the hoped-for restoration population at Atlanta Zoo, their fate was sealed.
On the 26th September this year, the last male perished. And barely anyone seemed to know.
All over the world, extinctions are happening both knowingly and unknowingly, but to the public at large they’re almost always in the latter category. OK, so the outcome of the US election is a pretty big issue, given that man could quite literally destroy the world. But how much more likely is the media likely to report the colour of Starbucks’ festive cups over the disappearance of an entire life form from our planet?
There are reassuring stories of when we will take notice – most notably one rather close to home. When the world’s only known site of a tiny money spider dubbed the ‘Horrid Ground-weaver’, in Plymouth of all places, was threatened with development, thousands rallied to its support online. This pressure was just one factor that halted the builders.
But this is an incredibly rare incident, and it only really got the notice it did because it was on an incredibly local and preventable scale. Undoubtedly humans are more conscious of the importance of the natural world than ever before, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into direct action, and our increasingly consumption-based lifestyle does not sit compatibly with a healthy natural world. We all stop in awe of David Attenborough documentaries, we all feel refreshed by an immersion into a woodland, and the imagery of the wild proliferates our culture. So why do we not seem to care?