An endangered green sea turtle

The Face of Extinction: A broad look at the past, present and future of biodiversity

Leif Johnson
Sep 7, 2018 · 11 min read

Ask any allergy sufferer how they feel about their nose. If they’re anything like me they’ll probably tell you it’s the red-headed step-child of the sensory organs. Often a rather stuffy, unhelpful sense, its efforts tend to go unnoticed throughout the day. So it was with a hint of surprise one day, as I walked toward our dock on Keewaydin Island, that the smell of saltwater entered my conscience, quickly overwhelming my senses and beckoning me toward the channel.

As I walked the wooded path each step seemed to startle something new. A splash here, a rustle there; if there’s one thing to know about south Florida, it’s that life here seems prolific. Every step taken is the first movement in a chain of dominoes sending something scurrying. It’s as if you’re dragging something you can’t see and, if you’re not used to it, you’ll drive yourself mad investigating. “What was that?!”

For my own sanity though, I’ve learned to ignore these sounds below a certain decibel level and in this tuned out fashion I arrived at our dock. Battered by years of boat wakes, changing tides, and failed docking attempts it strikes out with a fading defiance from shore, each board groaning underfoot as I walked.

When I eventually reached the far end the sun was diving into the Gulf behind me, illuminating the clouds overhead like an x-ray exposing bones. Like most people, I’m often unaware of the natural beauty all around me. Calloused by years of repetition; there’s always another job to be done or deadline to meet. Never enough time to just stop and observe, to be present, even if only for a moment. With everything done for the day though and a few minutes to spare I allowed myself this luxury and was astounded at what I witnessed.

What I saw and couldn’t see was life everywhere. Vibrant, unrestrained life. I felt it too in a tingling sensation, the thrum of energy and the beating of so many hearts, a palpable, visceral feeling that echoed in my chest and quickened my pulse. Bait fish schooled, stirring the water around me, shifting its color and texture like a painter mixing his palette. Snook and tarpon scoured the mangroves. Fiddler crabs worked the beach while dolphins combed the channel. An osprey called to its mate as vultures circled high above, black dots on a background of blue. Unseen amongst the vegetation, anoles, raccoons and deer patrolled the island, wading through the “bugs” and other invertebrates that filled the spaces between them. The muddy waters below my feet were cloaked in mystery and in my mind I envisioned manatees and sharks gliding below the surface, just out of sight. The world seemed to pulse with energy, like a heartbeat after too many espressos. Even the sky above boiled with unfurling storm clouds that inhaled moisture from the ocean, rustling the leaves and rippling the water as they blossomed.

All of this creates a feeling and beauty known only to this place and nowhere else on the planet, unique as the clouds in a storm. Yet in those moments, when I’m surrounded by such vibrant and seemingly plentiful life, it’s hard to imagine that the racing heartbeat I thought I was witnessing may actually be one struggling to beat at all. That many of those life forms were in danger and that extinction itself, the final bell toll for a species, may loom heavy and unknowingly for them.

But it does…

Top Left: Gopher Tortoise, Top Right: Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Bottom Left: Osprey, Bottom Right: White-tailed Deer

Roughly 50 to 60 miles, as the crow flies or slightly more as the turtle swims, southeast of where I stood that day is the area where Guy M. Bradley was killed on July 8th, 1905 (103 years ago). Guy was dubbed by Stuart B. McIver in his book on Bradley’s death as “America’s First Martyr to Environmentalism.” As the earliest hired game warden to the Everglades, he was killed attempting to halt the illegal hunting of birds for their feathers; an industry in which he grew up working. At that point in history wading birds like great and snowy egrets were highly prized for their feathers; a decorative piece for women’s hats at the time. The feathers were in such high demand that many of the birds of south Florida were in grave danger of extinction. The severity of the situation was such that in 1886 the American Ornithological Society estimated that nearly five million birds were being killed every year in the U.S. in order to satiate demand. If that’s true, it amounts on average to over 13,000 birds…per day.

“This kill-them-all strategy took its toll. Roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets, great white herons, and short-tailed hawks nearly vanished from Florida. The wild flamingos that so enchanted Audubon — and inspired the name of the village at the tip of Cape Sable — did vanish from Florida. The lime-green-and-carmine Carolina parakeet was hunted to extinction. There was only one pair of reddish egrets left on the peninsula, and only one rookery for brown pelicans, a clump of mangroves off Vero Beach called Pelican Island.” — (The Swamp, p.122)

When European settlers began moving into Florida they were astounded by the seemingly endless abundance of wildlife. The waters of Tampa Bay were boiling with so many fish “that they impede the passage of boats,” wrote one person, while others remember schools of fish that took all day to pass by and made it hard to sleep at night with their incessant splashing. The land was covered with innumerable quantities of game and the sky often darkened with flocks of passing birds.

Florida, was rich with life. Every inch of soil and sand teemed with it, but the sight of such seemingly inexhaustible abundance led many to treat it as just that, inexhaustible. Armed with these thoughts and a “manifest destiny” mentality, newly settled Floridians made quick work of wiping out vast amounts of wildlife on the peninsula.

Sea turtles, wading birds, manatees, shellfish, alligators, panthers, nothing was off limits, everything was fair game and within a relatively short period of time the abundance was reduced to a mere fraction of its former glory. The statistics are at once astounding and incomprehensible. Just over a century ago, the place where I stood would have teemed with a concentration of life that would have made what I had experienced seem like an ecological dead zone.

‘The vast number of birds and geese, ducks, curlews, fish crows and others, which would line the beach in the morning for miles so numerous that the sands could hardly be seen are gone and the flocks of curlews which flew steadily over the town for an hour or more every evening are no more.” — Lucien Beckner, who spent the winter of 1889–1890 in Naples and wrote a letter to Marjorie Stoneman Douglas after seeing Naples Bay again in 1955 (Tebeau, 1966).

This sort of wanton destruction and abuse would ultimately culminate in the birth of environmentally oriented legislation such as the Endangered Species Act in 1973; an act that is both revered by some and loathed by others. It claims that all species “of wildlife and plants are of aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people,” and seeks to protect those species, indefinitely.

The Act has proven to be invaluable to this country’s wildlife and wild places, literally bringing many species back from the brink of extinction. Yet, even under its ever watchful gaze we have continued our assault on nature.

Looking at a time table of the earth you’ll see all sorts of elaborate scientific names. Words like Holocene, Permian, Paleozoic, and the familiar Jurassic. These all refer to different times on earth when certain conditions prevailed and certain life forms were present. Over the last decade or so however, a new term and period has been introduced, the Anthropocene, meaning “human epoch.” Geologists have determined this to be a new and distinctive period in time because millions of years from now you will be able to physically see the impact we’ve had, in the geological record. Talk about a collective footprint! Of the roughly 50 million square miles of ice-free land on earth, more than 75% of it shows “evidence of alteration as a result of human residence and land use,” which begs the question, where does the rest of life on land go?

There have been five major extinction events in history where 50% or more of the species on earth at the time were wiped out, and now it would appear we are entering another, a sixth extinction. At the most conservative end of the spectrum we are losing species at a rate that is 100 times faster than the background rate of extinction; the rate at which species typically go extinct between major extinction events, while others estimate it to be 1,000 times that. “The total number of vertebrate species that went extinct in the last century would have taken about 800 to 10,000 years to disappear under the background rate of 2 E/MSY.” (Ceballos)

So why should we care? Anthropocene, sixth extinction, endangered species, what does it all mean to us? Our lives have been pretty good here in Florida. The loss of passenger pigeons or Carolina parakeets hasn’t really affected us has it? Why should we change what we’re doing in order to save a plant or animal we may have never even known existed?

The science community was shocked “in 1980 by the discovery of a tremendous diversity of insects in tropical forests. In one study of just 19 trees in Panama, 80% of the 1,200 beetle species discovered were previously unknown to science… Surprisingly, scientists have a better understanding of how many stars there are in the galaxy than how many species there are on Earth.” — World Resources Institute (WRI).

We don’t know everything that’s out there. We still have a lot left to learn from species both known and unknown, and there may be an infinite number of ways they could help us to solve our own problems. When we lose a species to extinction we rob ourselves of the ability to learn from them. Large numbers of the modern day pharmaceuticals we use come from plants and animals, while at the same time we’ve learned to solve many important problems through the process of biomimicry. But the big picture gets even worse when you think about the role those species played in there ecosystems, because this “is not simply about the disappearance of certain species from particular places, but about profound changes to ecosystems that provide vital services to hundreds of millions of people”(WWF report).

As with many complex systems you can lose a part to the system, yet it may still function similarly, if not entirely the same. Some parts can prove even more important than others though and the loss of something microscopic can be catastrophic for entire ecosystems. Take your own body for example. You don’t know how much you rely on particular body parts until you hurt or lose them altogether. The incus bone of your middle ear for instance. Most people don’t know what it is (and to be honest neither did I until just recently), but if you didn’t have it your life would be turned upside down. Quite literally in fact, because it is an essential part of your ability to balance and without it you wouldn’t know which way was up. Species can play similar roles, remove one seemingly inconsequential plant or animal species and you might cripple an entire ecosystem. Ecosystems we depend on for clean air, water, and food.

Aside from all these benefits species provide us though, there is still something else. Something we all know to be true. That economics should not be the reason we endanger the existence of another plant or animal. When we push a species over the edge we’re not just robbing future generations of the benefits they provide and the lessons they teach, we’re robbing them of the opportunity to feel a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty and diversity of life. We’re stealing experiences, and I say this because I know the frustration that comes with a stolen experience. That deprived feeling that I’ll never see flocks of birds that can block out the sun or vast expanses of giant old growth forests with trees so tall I feel completely insignificant in their presence. Many of these experiences have been erased in order to hold our own populations up, but we have to ask ourselves, was it worth it?

“Birds should be saved because of utilitarian reasons; and, moreover, they should be saved because of reasons unconnected with any return in dollars and cents…The extermination of the passenger-pigeon meant that mankind was just so much poorer…And to lose the chance to see frigate-birds soaring in circles above the storm, or a file of pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset…why, the loss is like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time.” — Teddy Roosevelt

Brown Pelican

Silence, the loss of a species, whether big or small, known or unknown, is felt by those that remain. It resonates in still waters, silent forests, trackless prairies, and wetlands now filled. Featureless mud once coated in tracks. The absence of a shadow and the silence it once instilled.

Since “1969, 99 percent of listed species have been prevented from going extinct through the efforts of the FWS Recovery program” and its many partners. This is a truly amazing statistic that shows what is possible when we commit ourselves to an effort. We can make these things happen if we make them priorities and accept our role and fate in their outcome.

It was easy to point the finger at hunters and the fashion industry when wading birds were disappearing, but the lines have blurred since then and the enemy to biodiversity is no longer so obvious. We’ve separated ourselves so drastically from the resources we utilize that the culprit is no longer clear. Everything is shrouded in fog and we can point at whomever we’d like, but if we wipe the mist from the mirror, we ultimately find ourselves, and if anything is going to change, it has to start there.

Though we may feel far removed from the issues at hand, we all play a role in the survival or demise of the world’s biodiversity. Your decisions and mine have never before had such a long lasting and far reaching effect as they do today, so choose wisely.

After all what would Florida be without manatees, alligators, panthers, and all the other amazing plants and animals that call it home? I hope that no one ever has to look over those waters on Keewaydin or anywhere else, as I did that day, and carry with them the burden of knowing that an animal couldn’t possibly be there, because it no longer exist. And to make sure of that, we need to have an equal appreciation for all the seemingly inconsequential conditions, habitats, and forms of life that make their lives and ours possible.

The End

American Alligator

Environmental Science Department

Scientists at the Conservancy have an active research agenda aimed at enhancing our understanding of ecosystems and associated wildlife in Southwest Florida.

Leif Johnson

Written by

Biologist working to change perspectives and speak for nature

Environmental Science Department

Scientists at the Conservancy have an active research agenda aimed at enhancing our understanding of ecosystems and associated wildlife in Southwest Florida.

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