Search and Rescue? Society Is Obsessed with Discovering—Not Preserving—New Species.

What's to come?
Sept. 11 2013 10:05 AM

Search and Rescue?

Society is obsessed with discovering new and rare species. Preserving them? Not so much.

Olinguito
We hear a lot about the newly discovered olinguto, pictured, because it's cute. But the Tasmanian devil, which isn't so cute, and isn't so new, doesn't get nearly as much press, despite being threatened by a facial tumor disease.

Photo courtesy Mark Gurney via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve been to the moon and been just about everywhere on Earth. So what’s left to discover? In September, Future Tense is publishing a series of articles in response to the question “Is exploration dead?” Read more about modern-day exploration of the sea, space, land, and more unexpected areas.

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

This August scientists at the Smithsonian unveiled the discovery of a new species—kind of. The olinguito had been hiding under our noses for decades, universally mistaken for its cousin the olingo until DNA testing proved the red-brown critter to be an independent species. Little mentioned in all the excitement was an alarming fact: Though the olinguito is not yet officially endangered, 42 percent of its habitat has already been destroyed by humans, and its numbers are likely to dwindle further.

But don’t expect to hear much publicity about the olinguito’s decline.

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Every year, scientists discover thousands of new species—about 20,000 in 2011 and 18,000 in 2012—and occasionally they even rediscover a species thought to be extinct. Then the process follows a pattern. A few become iconic or get drafted into the zoo circuit. But the vast majority are quickly forgotten by all but dedicated scientists—and face endangerment or extinction. The excitement that greets new species simply doesn’t translate into enthusiasm for their preservation. Today we’re living in the golden age of animal discovering, finding more new species than at any other point in modern history. Advanced technology has allowed us to infiltrate deeper into dense terrain than ever before, uncovering 1,200 new species in the overgrown jungles of the Amazon alone. Meanwhile, DNA testing has proved that there’s more species variety than the naked eye can detect, as the olinguito’s surprising emergence proves.

At the same time that we’re discovering so many new animals, though, we’re killing them off faster than we ever have before. Climate change, environmental destruction, and pollution are bringing more and more species to the brink. Almost 5,200 animals are officially endangered, up from around 1,900 in 1998. And our obsession with hunting down already-dead animals and cloning others distracts us from the more pressing needs of still-extant threatened species.

Humans, in fact, have become oddly selective in choosing animals to save. Pandas are almost universally treasured. But Looney Tunes scamp aside, the world has showed little love for the Tasmanian devil, a rodentlike marsupial that is being rapidly killed off by a facial tumor disease. Scientists are horrified by the sudden and somewhat mysterious onset of mass death, and the word extinction is already being tossed around. To compound matters, the Australian government just approved a mine that may annihilate the last remaining population of tumor-free devils.

Even as the Tasmanian devil slides into eradication, it continues to vie for attention with the Tasmanian tiger, an extinct species that found unlikely posthumous fame. The tiger, or thylacine, was incorrectly believed to be preying on settlers’ livestock in the early 20th century, and by the 1930s bounty hunters paid by farmers had killed most of the animals. The last thylacine died in 1936 after spending its final years scurrying back and forth across a small zoo cage.

A strange cult, however, developed around the thylacine soon after, and over the last eight decades, there have been 3,800 unconfirmed sightings of the animal. In death, unlike in life, the thylacine is good business: In 1983 Ted Turner offered a $100,000 reward for evidence of a live thylacine, and the Bulletin, an Australian news magazine, raised the prize to 1.25 million Australian dollars. Humans have spent the last 80 years ruing their complicity in allowing the Tasmanian tiger to go extinct. Now its slightly grotesque sister species is facing catastrophe—and there just isn’t any sympathy for the devil.

Meanwhile, on mainland Australia, another, weirder drama of species discovery is playing out, one that may indicate the darker side of species discovery: species fraud. Last June an Australian naturalist named John Young claimed to have captured the night parrot on film for the first time in history. The parrot, though not officially extinct, is so rare and elusive that scientists have questioned its continued survival. And there might still be reason for doubt: In 2006 Young alleged to have discovered an entirely new bird species, the blue-fronted fig parrot, but his findings were suspected to be manipulated.

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