Photography: All photos from Canada/Alamy
For decades, ecologists have been warning about the homogenization of diversity – increasingly similar species – in the living world. Now, researchers at the University of Sheffield have published research predicting that bird species with striking, extreme traits are likely to go extinct first. “The global extinction crisis doesn’t just mean we’re losing species,” says study leader Dr. Emma Hughes. “That means we’re missing out on unique traits and evolutionary history.”
This shows that human activity is not only drastically reducing the number of species, but is likely disproportionately destroying Earth’s most unique, unusual and distinctive creatures.
What would it mean to no longer share a planet with the toucan and its audacious beak four times the size of its head, even if you never see one in real life? Or the elegant Florican from Bengal, which looks like a walking treble clef. Or the iridescent hummingbird? Or the bird of paradise, with its rococo curled feathers?
Many of the potential impacts are unpredictable but dismal. As Hughes says, we are losing species that could “confer unique benefits to humanity that are currently unknown.” And we already know that the indirect effects of species loss can be catastrophic. The decline of vultures in India and the loss of their carrion niche has already had negative consequences for human populations, including the spread of disease.
This won’t just affect faraway places with more unusual species. “The extinction crisis will lead to a loss of morphological diversity in the UK as well,” says Hughes. Unfortunately, the Atlantic puffin, one of Britain’s most beloved birds, and other unique seabirds such as the black-footed kitten and Leach’s petrel are vulnerable.
Losing any species is tragic, but we are also facing a decline in the species that humans most admire. In short, we can expect the world to become “really plain and brown and boring,” Eliot Miller of the Cornell ornithology lab told the New York Times. More sparrows; less parrots.
If you were captured by an alien and asked to explain why Earth shouldn’t be destroyed, what would you say? As much as I love little brown works, I would think of the species so beautiful and unusual you can hardly believe they are real.
I would tell them about the chuck with its bright blue and pink face and rump. I was telling them about the hornbills that seem to be balancing a banana on their heads. I would mention the atlas moth which is as big as a human hand. The peacock jumping spider, the Christmas tree worm, the elf owl. I would tell them about the blowtorch, with its extraordinary curved beak; the kingfisher that descends the river like a turquoise meteor; the extravagant antlers of a deer. I would tell them about mountain gorillas, blue whales, and golden eagles. Baobabs, frogs and diatoms. Toucans! We have toucans!
It wouldn’t be hard to argue, as the exuberant diversity of life on Earth is its signature wonder.
Wonder is not just good, or a luxury. Scientists have shown that feeling awe has a measurable effect on human health. A University of Toronto study found that admiration was the only positive emotion that could predict lower levels of unhealthy inflammation. Admiration can also affect how we treat other people. People are more ethical, kind, and generous after feeling awe, and despite our unprecedented detachment from the non-human, we still receive most of our awe experiences from the world of the living.
All this focus on human emotions sounds terribly anthropocentric and less of a problem, but humans are naturally curious – and curiosity thrives on variety and diversity. While denialism in the face of climate collapse and extinction seems difficult to change, could this further deepening of what the biodiversity crisis means – a less interesting world – be a warning that goes through?
This latest research illustrates what the often hard-to-imagine biodiversity crisis looks like: a less resplendent and less vibrant world. It’s heartbreaking, yes, but exhilarating, and an opportunity to focus and pressure those in power. The vast majority of us don’t want to live in a world without toucans and puffins. Or a boring world, or a dying world. So would politicians care to mention how they frame the myopic focus on “growth” with a scorched and weathered Earth that is clearly telling us to stop?
If we eliminate the species with the most unique traits and continue to destroy Earth’s rich diversity, we will all be impoverished in ways we cannot yet understand. Even if we never see a toucan in the wild, we are still its relatives. His savagery is still, somehow, a part of us. We are still animals among animals.