Modern Mass Animal Die-Offs

Hannah Derrick

 

Imagine a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Imagine incredible and gigantic creatures, top predators, and seemingly invincible animals existing in a land untouched by humans and civilization. What could possibly harm a dinosaur? And then imagine that one day, suddenly, dinosaur populations started declining and these magnificent creatures ceased to exist. This is a scenario and a mystery that has baffled and intrigued both children and scientists for ages. For most people, mass extinction is a thing of prehistoric times, but what if there’s another mass extinction event occurring right at this moment?

Consider this:

 

  1. In January 2016, seabird biologist David Irons and biologist Tamara Zeller discovered an estimated 8,000 dead common murres on a one-mile stretch of beach in Whittier, Alaska. The nearly 8,000 dead birds is a record, indicating that the ecosystem might not be entirely healthy. Heather Renner, a biologist with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, estimates that nearly 100,000 common murres have died since August 2015. [1]

  2. For the third time ever, experts believe we are in the midst of a massive worldwide coral bleaching event that began in 2014. By the end of 2015, about 38% of the world’s reefs were affected by bleaching, leaving around 5% of the reefs dead and with no chance of revival.[2]

  3. In June 2015, 415,000 chickens were killed by the avian flu in Minnesota. As of June 2015, the avian flu had killed around 45 million chickens and turkeys in the United States, aided by warm weather keeping the virus alive.[3]

Bizarre as these events may seem, these are just a few of many, many similar instances. Some scientists believe that humans have had such an effect on the planet that a sixth mass extinction may have begun; scientists have estimated that extinction rates are 5-1000 times higher than normal background rates depending on the species.[4] So what exactly is causing this phenomenon? Reports have shown that many mass mortality events are caused by increased disease emergence, biotoxicity, and events produced by multiple interacting stressors.[5] Most of the factors that are causing mass mortality events of species have anthropogenic origins. Humans have altered the earth immensely in order to meet their needs for food and energy resources to accommodate a vastly increasing population; these changes, in turn, put an immense amount of stress on other species. Habitat loss, overfishing and overhunting, and climate change as a result of energy production seem to be at the heart of mass die-offs.5 Some species are depleting as a result of being the target of hunters and poachers, while some are affected when their source of food is overhunted, leading to starvation. Ultimately, humans are coming out on top when competing with other species for food, space, and resources.

 

Mass mortality events have the potential to result in a significant decrease in biodiversity and harm ecosystems. But is there a way to stop threats to species? Increased conservation efforts will be vital in reversing and possibly stopping species loss and extinctions. Dr. Stuart Pimm, a leading conservation ecologist and founder of SavingSpecies, believes that an important first step is to protect habitats from destruction.[6] Thus, in order to reduce extinctions, protected areas are essential. The United States has taken some steps toward wildlife conservation, like the requirement of states to implement Comprehensive Conservation Plans. States have flexibility to implement the plans in ways that will work best in each state while incorporating citizens’ thoughts. However, people need to think carefully about both the size and placement of these refuges when implementing them. In order to sufficiently protect a species, a protected area must be large in order to account for species’ boundaries and must encompass areas where threats to biodiversity are particularly high.7 In the United States, this could mean extending marine protected areas to include coastal regions so that runoff and pollution are accounted for, which could curb eutrophication and algae and decrease declining fish stocks and other marine life death. In addition, protected areas and refuges on land and in water should be placed where land and wildlife need to be rehabilitated, and not in already healthy and aesthetically pleasing systems. On land, care also needs to be taken not to fragment habitats with roads and other structures, unlike the road Congress approved through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.[7] The Dr. Pimm and other scientists also note that in order to significantly reduce extinctions, we also need to simply be more educated on the issue, by allowing more research to be done and by facilitating more communication with the public on how to best coexist with wildlife and make minor lifestyle changes to decrease waste, overhunting, and carbon emissions contributing to global warming. More information needs to be collected on species’ numbers, distributions, and threats. Perhaps, with more transparency and knowledge on the issue, and with more sufficient conservation efforts, mass extinctions can be slowed down and important species can be saved for many years to come.

 

Quinn

I think this is a really important point you bring up because each individual species’ extinction leads causes a ripple effect among global populations of all sort of dependent species. For example, pesticide use kills certain pests that attack agricultural plots, however they also have been found to kill bees (which are crucial to pollination systems) and birds (who are natural bug-regulators in the first place). Both of these organisms, who are treated as necessary casualties for the sake protecting farmland, have larger roles than their mere existence. By eliminating any individual organism, we disrupt an entire food chain that will eventually reach back to us, so even if we’re thinking from exclusively a selfish lens its still an issue humans should be concerned by. While it’s important to minimize our impact on species populations going forward, and to protect existing habitats, etc, my question is: is the damage already done irreversible; have we already gone too far? We caused significant declines in many populations, all of which have been added to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species list, but the efforts to restore those populations have been severely lacking in robustness. Since its inception in 1967, the Endangered Species List has increased from fewer than 100 species to over 1300 plant and animal species in 2012. While educating children about these species, about conservation efforts, and about humanity’s impact on global ecosystems is a step forward, I don’t know that it is something people would prioritize to their economic or personal environmental woes — things that affect their daily lives. It’s difficult to have people volunteer altruistically to sacrifice their current habits to benefit an animal they may never have seen before (and perhaps never will). Also, with so many animals and plants already in fairly dire straits, can we really ever restore the same biodiversity that there once was, or do we just have to adjust to the current state of biodiversity and do our best not to inflict further damage?

 

[1] Kovar, S., & Almasy, S. (2016, January 22). Thousands of birds found dead along Alaskan shoreline. Retrieved March 21, 2016, from http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/21/us/alaska-bird-die-off/


[2] Mooney, C. (2015, October 8). Scientists say a dramatic worldwide coral bleaching event is now underway. Retrieved March 21, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/10/08/scientists-say-a-dramatic-worldwide-coral-bleaching-event-is-now-underway/

[3] Hughlett, M. (2015, June 3). Bird flue continues to hit Minnesota. Retrieved April, 4 2016, from http://www.startribune.com/bird-flu-continues-to-hit-minnesota/306061371/

[4] Barnosky, A.D. (2015). Transforming the global energy system is required to avoid the sixth mass extinction. MRS Energy & Sustainability: A Review Journal, 2(e10), 1-13. Retrieved March 22, 2016, from http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FMRE%2FMRE2%2FS2329222915000112a.pdf&code=9b7b780dd76fe12edb323feb4fadd1e3.

[5] Fey, S.B., Siepielski, A.M., Nusslé, S., Cervantes-Yoshida, K., Hwan, J.L., Huber, E.R., Fey, M.J., Catenazzi, A., and Carlson, S.M. (2015). Recent shifts in the occurrence, cause and magnitude of animal mass mortality events. PNAS, 112(4), 1083-1088. Retrieved March 22, 2016, from http://www.pnas.org/content/112/4/1083.full.pdf.

[6] Pimm, S.L., Jenkins, C.N., Abell, R., Brooks, T.M., Gittleman, J.L., Joppa, L.N., Raven, P.H., Roberts, C.M., Sexton, J.O. (2014). The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction, distribution, and protection. Science 344(6187), 987-998. Retrieved March 22, 2016, from http://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/344/6187/1246752.full.pdf.

[7] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2009). The Road to Nowhere. Retrieved April 4, 2016 from http://refugeassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Izembek_report09.pdf

 

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