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

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Sept. 11 2013 10:05 AM

Search and Rescue?

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

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If the night parrot did re-emerge, it would be in the rare category of so-called Lazarus animals: those species rediscovered after years of purported extinction.

Consider the case of the Bermuda petrel. European settlers brought domestic animals to Bermuda that obliterated the seabird’s population, and the species was considered extinct by the early 17th century. Yet a 1951 rediscovery brought the petrel back to life, and Bermuda immediately launched an intensive protection program to keep the beautiful bird alive. And it worked: Today the petrel’s population has grown exponentially, and Bermudans consider its conservation a patriotic duty. New Zealanders have taken a similar tack with their beloved takahē, turning the gorgeously colorful bird into a national symbol and throwing millions into its preservation.

Not every Lazarus animal become a point of patriotic pride, of course. In the 1970s scientists stumbled across Chacoan peccaries residing in northern Argentina. The hairy, porcine beast had previously been considered long-dead. But Argentinians failed to rally around the now-endangered peccary, allowing its natural habitat to be destroyed at alarming rates. Likewise, no one is rushing to raise millions for the tree lobster, a Lazarus insect species rediscovered just last year. Once ubiquitous on a small island in the South Pacific, the tree lobster was thought to be killed off by non-endemic rats in the early 20th century. But several specimens somehow survived on an isolated volcanic fragment 13 miles away, reproducing.

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Perhaps the most thrilling Lazarus species to emerge is the coelacanth, a massive, deep-sea-dwelling fish thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago. The appearance of a specimen in 1938 stunned the scientific community, providing a glimpse into aquatic-to-terrestrial evolution. Nothing less than a living dinosaur, the coelacanth launched a new era of species rediscovery.

In fact, most Lazarus species tend to draw even more publicity than new species, and it’s easy to see why: If new species are good news, Lazarus animals are downright miraculous. But those miraculous discoveries don’t always translate into continued enthusiasm, as the Chacoan peccary’s plight suggests. Many factors contribute to a species’ survival, of course, but adorable animals are significantly more likely to be preserved than unsightly ones, thanks to a cult of cuteness promulgated by zoo culture.

David Stokes, a professor of conservation biology at University of Washington, isn’t bothered that the publicity surrounding a new species’ debut does not often translate into continued support. For conservationists, excitement discovery can be a welcome burst of good news in “a scene heavily dominated by bad news.” We’re constantly hearing of drowning polar bears and disappearing bees; spending a day chattering about the olinguito provides a kind of vacation from the pessimism.

Benign as that notion may sound, it also indicates the problem inherent to separating species discovery and species conservation. Discoveries like the olinguito are thrilling, certainly, but they’re only the start of a never-ending fight for preservation. Those hunting thylacines and night parrots aren’t of much use to the thousands of species that could go extinct in our lifetime—10,000 have already gone extinct the last 100 years—and their quest might give the false impression that extinction isn’t permanent. Uncovering Lazarus animals and new species is exciting, but the real work comes in the follow-through. And unless scientists, zoos, and governments are prepared to dramatically alter the way we think about and fund species conservation, our golden age of animal discovery could soon become an age of mass extinction.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

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