When faced with extinction, wildlife creatively adapts

Here’s some grim news: thousands of animal species are disappearing every year and the rate of extinction will only increase in the coming future.

As tragic as that sounds, is it even remote­ly surprising anymore? We’ve gotten so used to hearing bad news about the state of the en­vironment that the image of humanity as this unstoppable, destructive force is pretty much cemented in both popular media and our collec­tive consciousness.

Journalist and author Jeremy Hance admitted, “As an environmental journalist, I sometimes feel it’s my job to simply document the decline of life on planet Earth. The word ‘depressing’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. For many of us—myself included some days—the desperate state of our environment leaves us numb with sadness and, frankly, lost in hopelessness” (The Guardian, “Has hope become the most endan­gered species in conservation?,” 10.05.2016).

Yet, despite all this doom and gloom, we’re not giving the animals on the planet enough credit. Thanks to all the destruction that we cause, we tend to assume that nature itself is powerless against the overwhelming power of humankind. As true as that might be, it’s a rather arrogant assertion that underestimates the wild­life on the planet. The Earth’s biodiversity may be in danger thanks to humans, but nature isn’t entirely dependent on human activities.

For the environmentally savvy individu­al, there is absolutely no question that Earth’s wildlife is dying at an alarming rate. A study published in 2014 found that 41 percent of all amphibian species on Earth face the threat of extinction, as well as 26 percent of mammal species and 13 percent of bird species (Nature World News, “2015 May See Several Species Go Extinct,” 01.02.2015). Not only that, upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest are being de­stroyed every day, leading to an estimated loss of 50,000 species a year (Scientific American, “Measuring the Daily Destruction of the World’s Rainforests,” 11.18.2009).

More and more, animals steadily face extinc­tion, from the majestic Siberian tiger (Nature World News) to the rusty patched bumble bee (The Huffington Post, “The Loneliest Frog On Earth Dies, Marking The End Of Yet Another Species,” 10.04.2016).

If this devastating trend continues, scien­tists worry that at least one in every six species could vanish from the face of the planet by the year 2100 (The Huffington Post). Nature doesn’t stand a chance in the face of such overwhelming threats.

But while it’s true that the state of the planet elicits distress, it would be misguided to believe that all wildlife is helpless. Rather, nature is in­credibly clever with how it approaches this dire situation. Because it’s not sheer dominance and size that guarantees survival; it’s adaptability.

For instance, scientists in 2011 discovered four new species of bees in the densely popu­lated and highly urbanized New York City (The New York Times, “City Bees Newly Discovered, Yet Here All Along,” 11.10.2011). These bees have been found in Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau Counties hidden among other species. That is astounding, especially when one considers the rapid decline of bee populations across the planet. Not only that, researchers also identified a new species of frog in New York City as well (National Geographic, “Big City, Big Surprise: New York City’s Newest Species Is a Frog,” 10.29.2014). The Atlantic Coast leopard frog, or Rana kauffeldi, was first found in Staten Island and is seemingly resistant against the chytrid fungal disease that’s wiping out hundreds of am­phibian species elsewhere in the world.

That’s right: In the age of extinctions and en­dangered animals, new species are being found right at our doorsteps. Even outside of New York City, entomologist Emily Hartop has document­ed 43 new species in the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles in just two years (New Scientist, “Los Angeles launches hunt for unknown spe­cies hiding in cities,” 04.14.2016). Hartop wants other members of the community to explore urban landscapes and search for new species of spiders, snails, slugs, reptiles and amphibians hiding in the cracks.

“[Urban landscapes] are as important for biodiversity as ancient woodlands,” says Matt Shardlow, the chief executive of the UK conser­vation group Buglife.

However, it’s not just that new species are be­ing found in areas changed by human activity. Animals that have lived for centuries in undis­turbed wilderness are adjusting to city life and human presence, an amazing testament to the power of adaptation.

A great example of such an animal is the coy­ote, which has changed from a species native to the open plains of western America to one that has spread to every corner of the United States (National Geographic, “How Wild Animals Are Hacking Life in the City,” 04.18.2016). As om­nivores, coyotes in the city usually come out during the night and search for anything to eat from backyard fruit to wild prey.

After decades of contact with human society, these canines have learned when to safely cross roads by observing traffic patterns and how to hide effectively in hidden concrete dens to avoid humans. But in some areas, coyotes have become so used to humans that they approach people and nip them on the shin to ask for food (YES! Magazine, “We Aren’t Alone in Our Cit­ies: 12 Ways Animals Have Adapted to Urban Life,” 04.14.2015).

“If no one had seen a coyote before, I wouldn’t take them to a rural environment, I’d go to Den­ver,” says Stewart Breck, a research wildlife bi­ologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (National Geographic, 04.18.2016). Breck under­scores the incredible malleability of the coyote’s environmental fitness.

That’s not all. Many other animals are follow­ing suit in order to survive in an increasingly human-centered world. Sparrows in Bangkok, Thailand have changed their sleeping patterns to stay awake late into the night in order to feed on the swarms of bugs that are drawn towards the city’s bright lights (YES! Magazine). In Germa­ny, wild boars are known to travel from the rural forest areas to the suburbs of Berlin in order to stay safe during hunting season. Tawny owls in Finland have become more brown over the past few decades in response to climate change and the lack of snow (Grist, “How humans are forc­ing other species to evolve,” 05.05.2011).

The Atlantic tomcod, a species of fish found in the Hudson river, have grown resistant to tox­ins and can swim in relatively polluted waters with no ill effect. There really is no end to the different ways animals have adapted to human activities.

“We forget that we are the biggest cause of evolution on the planet right now. We have this view of the wild as a pristine place [and of evo­lution as something that happens] in the wild. But humans in cities are changing the animals now,” remarks Suzanne MacDonald, biologist at York University in Toronto, Canada, who studies urban raccoons (National Geographic, 04.18.2016).

Sometimes, endangered animals find refuge where one least expects it. An endangered bird known as the black-crowned night heron has adapted to urban life and is thriving in the heart of Chicago, the third largest city in the United States.

That’s the cardinal rule about nature: it’s all about the ability to adapt to changing environ­ments. In the end, natural selection ensures the survival of the most clever and resourceful crea­tures.

So, let’s end the egotistical belief that, as hu­mans, we ultimately decide the life and death of all animals on the planet. This infers a God complex, a trope that often dominates popular media’s representations of science (in particu­lar, biodiversity).

We certainly shouldn’t ignore the destructive impact of human activity, but we shouldn’t look down on nature’s wildlife, either.

One Comment

  1. Steven, another good piece, bringing some sober, rational perspective to a topic too often treated with emotional hysteria devoid of solid scientific basis.

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