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Calculating extinction; finding ways to get children thinking

‘The sixth mass extinction is already underway’ the Guardian reports. ‘We only have 20 years to halt it’ the Telegraph adds. A new study by the University of Lund, Sweden, and the University of British Columbia, Canada has advised that the best ways to reverse the impact we are having on the planet is to stop using air travel, to give up the car, have fewer children and switch to a vegetarian or plant-based diet. Trading tumble dryers for hanging clothes out to dry and switching off lights are also factors that we can contribute, to do our bit.

It’s great when these stories come back around and remind us to think about our impact on the planet, but to me, nothing says it better than the incredible documentary; Racing Extinction. Now that the initial hype of a documentary release has died down, I found myself wondering about the impact of the school resources that I worked on whilst at my previous job at Discovery Education. Do they still have the same momentum without the film release? Because they need it!

racing extinction species campaign

Educating children is the key to improving the condition of the planet for future generations. Giving them the chance to see the mistakes of the generations before them, and empowering them to not only avoid those mistakes, but improve upon them, is an incredibly powerful tool.

For this reason, when I was approached through my job at National Geographic Kids to suggest a challenge for gifted children, as part of Potential Plus UK‘s 50th anniversary, I felt it was a good opportunity to think about what the last 50 years that the programme has been in existence have meant for natural history.

Creating a Maths challenge, I suggested a method for estimating the amount of species decline, which included researching the rapidly increasing rate of extinction — and looking ahead over the next 50 years to estimate how many more species we are likely to lose if things don’t change.

The challenge was included in the ’50 Challenges for 50 Years’ Book, which was launched on the organisation’s Family Challenge Day and given to the gifted and talented children to try at home with their family.

potential plus calculating extinction

Check out the challenge on Potential Plus UK’s website, and give it a go yourself. As well as testing your maths skills, I’m hoping it serves as a humbling opportunity to see the need to protect species — and the consequences we may face if we don’t.

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Making Nature exhibition

Making Nature is an exhibition I recently visited at the Wellcome Galleries in Euston. It provides an intriguing look at the evolving relationship between humans and nature.

Though I can’t say that I related to every part of the exhibition, I would recommend it as a welcome introduction to considering humans and their place (or rather, perceived place) within the natural world.

Organising

Separated into four themed rooms, Making Nature attempts to guide visitors through the complex journey of the last century or two that has seen us move from studying nature to ‘creating’ it. The first signpost on that whistle-stop tour was ‘Organising’.

This room was dedicated to early studies and illustrations of nature, including botanical study. It examined where and how nature was placed within those studies, early books and art work, and how that initial work evolved into more formal study of taxonomy.

Taxonomy; the science of classification – in this case of organisms – is truly reflective of how we position ourselves within a kingdom of wildlife (usually we humans place ourselves at the top of such a structure). I think that was the point being made in a darkened alcove of the room, playing video footage and rolling subtitles about humans’ search for intelligent life in outer space, and declaring that we should look a little closer to home; in parrots.

Admittedly, this display seemed a little out of place amongst all the old sketches and classification charts, but it had a good point — that parrots are vocal communicators like humans, and capable of speech, but we’ve only just begun to consider them as a species to communicate with.

This was highlighted by the story of Alex the Grey Parrot and Dr. Irene Pepperberg, who conducted research into the cognitive abilities of parrots. Find out more about them here: http://alexfoundation.org

Displaying

The next room looked at our need to ‘progress’ from illustrations to true-to-life displays of animals. Not far from the early ideals of man being at the top of the pyramid of life, the ‘displaying’ room examined various curiosities in man’s attempt to hold, house and recreate nature for our viewing pleasure.

Beginning with Crystal Palace’s famous Victorian dinosaur park — home to stone recreations of the imaginings of what real life dinosaurs would have looked like (created using fossil finds of the time; though not always accurate) — leading on to the more common displays of the day; the diorama display.

The pain-staking details of many diorama displays try to capture the colours, atmosphere and scale of the natural world and have provoked a progression in taxidermy; to aim for ‘action poses’ attempting to recreate natural behaviour. Quite unlike the portrait-style emotionless taxidermy you largely find in the infamous Hall of Mammals at London’s Natural History Museum.
London’s Natural History Museum’s significant architecture was also examined in this room. Originally built as a ‘cathedral to nature‘, the outside of the building was once adjourned with a figure of Adam at the top of its arches, to signify ‘man’s place at the top of the kingdom’. The biblical figure of Adam no longer remains

Observing

The purpose of displaying is to, of course, allow for observation. As humans we moved from an interest in static displays and illustrations to the desire to observe real life animal behaviour for ourselves. And so comes an examination of the era of the zoological gardens and eventually ‘the zoo‘.

This area of the exhibit examines the early popular attractions of London Zoo, including a once much-admired performing elephant and London’s ‘infamous polar bears’ — immortalised in zoo merchandise such as postcards and plushie toys.
One of the evolutions in the history of zoo that I can never quite get my head around was the conscious movement to irradicate a sense of natural environment from the zoo enclosure. Described in this exhibition as London Zoo‘s movement to champion architecture that ‘contrasted the animals and made them stand out’, this seems like such a dark and misguided interpretation of animal observation to me.

Famous architects were employed to remove nature from the surrounds, which ultimately removes the chance to see animals’ naturalistic behaviour. The very thing the zoo was supposed to provide.

This room made me think about an episode of popular US podcast Radiolab, which examines a period in the late 1970s where zoo architect David Hancocks re-examines a gorilla enclosure after a discussion with renowned gorilla expert Dian Fossey about what the animals’ natural environment would look like. His experiment to bring a naturalistic environment into the gorilla enclosure is considered the first link between zoo enclosure and the mental health of the animal’s inside them (listen to the full episode here).
I was somewhat disappointed that this room didn’t contain any mention of opposition to zoos, or the concrete architectural designs of enclosures like the one shown in the photograph above. This snapshot of a concrete prison, devoid of enrichment and anything that even slightly resembles life in the wild was even available to buy as a postcard in the gift shop. It made me think of Born Free Foundation‘s report on elephant captivity; Innocent Prisoner.

Making Nature‘s insight into ‘observation’ also included a modern-day video about the process of landscaping a zoo enclosure to fulfil the need for animal enrichment, but also for spectators to feel ‘involved’ — as the interviewee put it, “so they can get up close enough to the animals to feel scared”.

Again, I was disappointed that there was no mention of opposition to zoos, as if the exhibition worked on the assumption that we all feel the desire to observe animals in the same way. There was even a video of a sorry-looking tiger kept in house; wandering between bedroom and bathroom, looking in the mirror and yowling. The idea was to try and decide whether the tiger recognised itself in the mirror. I couldn’t bring myself to sit down and watch.

I was also surprised to see that — although there was mention of London Zoo once having a famous performing elephant — there was nothing on circus’ and the history of observing animals in this kind of environment (and once again, a lack of seizing the opportunity to look at both sides of the argument here). It would have been good to examine some of the complexities and mistakes we have made over our history of observing wildlife, as well as simply noting our penchant for seeing animals up close. I added this feedback to the feedback wall at the end of the exhibition.

Making

The final room in the exhibition was probably the most fascinating to me; examining human impact and influence on wildlife; specifically genetic engineering, using animals in laboratories for scientific experiments and testing, and domestication.

Compared to the former examples of ‘making nature’, domestication is one that we have grown so accustomed to that it seems less ‘dark’ and extreme — that is, until I saw it laid out in such a clear and confronting manner. From rows of horses teeth, to colour coded budgies to an examination of the ‘perfect’ white rat, regarded as the desired pet of high society Victorian women; it’s weird to think how much we’ve interfered with nature.
There was also a focus on how we use animals outside of the meat, dairy and clothing industry, such as in the days of using the African Clawed Frog as pregnancy test (for 30 years the frog species was used as the most accurate and efficient pregnancy test! Eighteen of the reptiles were introduced to the US in 1937 for this purpose. If a pregnant woman urinated on a female frog, it would produce eggs within 12 hours; this provided the model for the modern day pregnancy test testing urine).

Although some of how we use animals is incredibly uncomfortable to acknowledge, there were some extremely important examples of how we’ve intervened with nature to help humans live alongside it more effectively — such as modifying mosquitos so that they no longer spread diseases like dengue fever. And then there’s the matter of de-extinction.

I’ve read some fascinating articles in both BBC Wildlife magazine and BBC Earth magazine about scientists developing the technology to harvest DNA from specimens of extinct species and using that to create an embryo to be carried by a similar, surviving species.

Woolly mammoths are always the buzzword when it comes to the topic of ‘de-extinction‘, but as yet the capabilities of growing a mammoth embryo are not sophisticated enough to not require a surrogate mother (female elephants are not large enough for the job). It seems that that may about to change before too long however, after the success of a baby lamb grown for four weeks in an artificial womb.

 In the meantime at least, Making Nature shows us the very real and current project to bring back the passenger pigeon.

Natural History Museums around the world are collecting DNA from their specimens of passenger pigeon to try and gather enough to genetically modify an existing living embryo (presumably that of another species of pigeon). Remarkably, the exhibition included a vial of some of this extracted DNA.

The plaque beside it, written by The Long Now Foundation reads:

“This tiny vial captures an extremely unusual moment in the story of the extinct passenger pigeon. DNA samples are being collected from 19th-century passenger pigeons in museum collections, in order to assemble sufficient genetic diversity to be able to ‘resurrect’ the extinct species. While this project is in its infancy with much uncertainty surrounding it, if successful, the passenger pigeon would be the first species to be recovered from DNA alone.”

Now that truly is making nature!