Thursday, May 29, 2008

Missing the Story on Quaggas and Extinction

Click to enlarge. This is a family tree showing how a "quagga"-coated Plains Zebra was created in just four generations. Source

Olivia Judson had a piece in yesterday's New York Times entitled Musings Inspired By a Quagga.

A quagga? The South Africa zebra? Now there's an interesting story. Surely any "musings" on that animal and its story would be full of insight!

My hopes were dashed, however. Ms. Judson had nothing to say about the quagga, and nothing new to add to the topic of extinction, ostensibly the topic of her piece.

Sadly, her "musings" read like notes of a romantic school girl who has just walked though a natural history museum for the first time. I doubt that is what she intended, but there it is.

For example, Ms. Judson mentions the quagga in her title, but seems unaware that this animal is not really a species of Zebra at all -- it is a subspecies, and a subspecies of the most common and variable type of Zebra, the Plains Zebra.

As an evolutionary biologist, Ms. Judson knows the difference between a species and a subspecies. And it's not like the world has raised the bar very high when it comes to designating a new species. Quite the opposite. When in doubt we split rather than lump species, if for no other reason than we can now sell the naming rights to a new animal or plant for as much as $2 million.

That said, there are limits to all things, and the quagga has crossed them. DNA analysis of old quagga skins by the Smithsonian Institution confirms that the quagga was not a separate species of zebra, but rather a simple color-variant of the Plains Zebra.

This information is not deeply hidden. In fact Lutz Heck (a scientist instrumental to the creation of the German Hunt or Jagt terrier) was the first to suggest in his book, Grosswild im Etoshaland (1955), that careful back breeding of Plains Zebras could produce an animal identical to the "extinct quagga" in a matter of a few generations.

Heck's theory was put into action in 1987 by Reinhold Rau, and quagga-coated zebras were being reproduced in less than 20 years time.

Did I mention that this information is not closely held? In fact, The New York Times has had long articles about it! Yes, the same New York Times in which Ms. Judson writes.

Ms. Judson's paean to wildlife extinction also fails to mention how few plants and animals have actually gone extinct in the last 500 years. The numbers here are quite different from what people think!

In fact, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), only about 800 vertebrate animals and vascular plants have gone extinct in the last 500 years, and of these only 70 were species of mammals (most of them mice, rats and bats), and even here there is some padding, as some of the species listed by the IUCN are demonstrably not extinct, including the quagga and Burchell's Zebra (to name just two). Furthermore, if you study this sort of thing carefully you find that today about as many "extinct" animals are being rediscovered every year as are being listed as "gone for good."

Please do NOT misunderstand what I am saying. I am NOT saying things are all fine -- far from it. A lot of wildlife and wild places are under very serious threat.

I am saying, however, that the situation is a bit more complex than Ms. Judson and some others would have us believe, and in the complexity is a more interesting story than what is now being told to us.

The real story is we have not (yet) destroyed the world, and we are doing quite a lot to protect what remains, and even bring some of it back from the brink.

Today in the U.S. we have more wolves, more buffalo, more bald eagles, more wild turkey, more peregrine falcons, more beaver, more cougar, more white tail deer, more grizzlies, more whales, more coyote, more osprey, more alligators, more red fox, and more raccoon than we did 30 years ago, 50 years ago, or even 100 years ago.

Today more wild land is being set aside in Africa, Asia and Latin America than you can imagine, and wildlife is being re-introduced into some areas where it was once extirpated.

Are things still grim for some species and some locations? Of course. But on land, at least, we are making real progress. In fact, the direction and velocity is astoundingly positive. Only in the oceans are we falling down on the job, and even here change is beginning.

If one is going to talk about lost animal and plant species, I also think we need to mention that we are probably creating more species today than we are actually losing. The fact that these new species are varieties of corn, rice, potatoes, bananas, cattle, pigs, chickens and fish does not make them less important to Mother Nature.

In fact, by any objective standard "miracle" rice and transgenic salmon are more valuable to the natural world (bees, bears, bunnies and barracudas) than any subspecies of Plains Zebra. The reason for this is simple: Only through increased agricultural production can the world decrease pressure on our remaining wild lands and wildlife.

Which brings me, in conclusion, to the most bizarre omission in Ms. Judson's piece: not a word about the speed of human population growth.

This is a odd because Ms. Judson's claim to fame is that she wrote a little book entitled Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex.

All the words are there -- sex, evolution, biology -- but Ms. Judson never seems to connect them up. And it's not like it would be hard to do when talking about the quagga and people. The human population of the world was 1.5 billion the day "the last quaaga went extinct." By 1930 world population had clicked past 2 billion, by 1960 three billion, by 1975 four billion, by 1987 five billion, by 1999 6 billion. When the quagga-coated Plains Zebra last disappeared, Africa had a population of 125 million people; by 2050 it is expected to have a population of 1.75 billion.

This is the big story -- the story that Judson does not even give a nod to. You see, we humans do not wake up every morning intent on fouling our own nest -- that's just what we do when there are too many of us living without income, knowledge, and technological capacity to lighten the load. That is the story of environmental destruction on this planet. This is the BIG story that Ms. Judson missed while wandering about in a museum musing about an extinct species that was, in fact, never a species and is, in fact, not extinct.

And the Harpy Eagle? It is not endangered as Ms. Judson and the museum claim. It is "near threatened" which is the category right next to "least concerned"

Which is to say the Harpy Eagle is "not threatened, but we're keeping an eye on it."

There's your story, and it's really not a bad story or a sad one, is it? Eyes wide open, we are now saving the planet, and almost all of it is still there to be saved if we get right on it.

And we are.


No comments: