Plenary Session and Keynote Address

Plenary Session  Theme


Death And Taxas:

Extinction and Speciation During the Anthropocene


Northern Elephant Seal – Photo by Michael L. Baird

We are closing in on a decade since the concept of the “Anthropocene” first took root. The term stems from the Greek words for human (Anthropo-) and new (-cene) and represents a backward glance—as far back as the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution—and a prophetic gaze forward—into our LCD mobile phones, the modern crystal ball. This burgeoning geologic epoch is one steeped in enough controversy that it has yet to be formally adopted by the appropriate parties. But there is little question among scientists that the proposed Anthropocene (or, conservatively, our current Holocene) has recently become an epoch indelibly defined by humankind’s impact on Earth’s climate, biogeography, biodiversity, geomorphology, and stratigraphy.

Because we are scientists, we recognize that the systems above are as reliant on each other as wildflowers are to pollinators. But because we are also wildlife biologists, we have the privilege of focusing our studies on the species that comprise Earth’s biodiversity. The trickledown effects of humankind’s impact can be seen in wildlife through range shifts, the spread of pathogens and invasive species, habitat loss, extirpations and extinctions, and more. The effects we see are so pervasive, it seems appropriate that wildlife have become our canary in the coalmine. But it is unseemly that today we have grown numb to the deafening silence of each canary lost to the coalmine.

And so, we find ourselves faced with death, the plight of declining to extinct taxa, the discovery of new taxa, and the rediscovery of taxa thought to be extinct. Extirpation, recovery, extinction, and rewilding: one thing they have in common is humans, one thing that differentiates them is the passage of time. To reach extinction, to resort to rewilding, means we’ve waited too long. In the Anthropocene, time is money, and the costs to rebuild a species from genes and spare parts can be exponentially greater than those necessary to manage a species in decline.

Today, we extoll the efforts spent to recover the California condor and hang our head over the loss of the Xerces blue butterfly, extinction’s cautionary poster child. Stories like these force us to ask ourselves when is it appropriate to step in, and is it ever too late? Are we ready to learn from past mistakes in time to prevent future ones? Because at some point, in the not-too-distant future, we’ll learn whether action or inaction bears a steeper price to pay.

California Condor – Photo by USFWS

These are sobering thoughts in trying times, but the challenges are not insurmountable. Even as science marches forward, there is still time to remember the past so that we are not condemned to repeat it. These are the questions we’ll be exploring, using case studies from the past – the elephant seal, California condor, Xerces blue butterfly – to inform crises in the present – Sierra Nevada red fox, Lange’s metalmark butterfly, mountain yellow-legged frog.

As we stand at the crossroads of a geologic epoch that portends permanency, as scientists it seems unquestionable that in this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and “taxas”. One is inevitable, the other enviable. That humankind will continue to leave our indelible mark on the planet seems inescapable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be one of beauty. Of a planet – and its “taxas” – made whole again for future generations.

Lange’s Metalmark Butterfly. Photo by Sarah Bettelheim

 

This sea elephant knows his stuff, 1936. Photo by Acme Newspapers.


2019 Keynote Address 

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