Common Sense Added to Endangered Species List

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

As Anthony Watts highlighted, the recent paper in Nature (paywalled, reported here) on extinctions agreed with the main conclusion that I had established in my post “Where Are The Corpses“. The conclusion was that the “species/area relationship” as currently used doesn’t work to predict extinctions, and thus there is no “Sixth Wave of Extinctions” going on.



This example of an imaginary “wave of extinctions” once again highlights the difficulties of over-credulous scientists as well as the public. The consensus of scientific and public opinion has been that we are in the middle of a mythical “sixth wave” of extinction. In fact, this consensus was much more far-reaching than the claimed consensus regarding climate science … and just as wrong. Sadly, the “Sixth Wave of Extinction” meme is likely to be very hard to kill.

Figure 1. Another alarmist hockeystick. This is the most common graph that comes up on Google Images for “rate of extinction”. I cannot find any attribution for the graph. I do note that we haven’t seen the hundreds of extinctions claimed by whoever made the graph, and that the person who made the graph can’t spell “extinct”. But the graph is hugely popular, replicated on blog after blog.

One web site where this Fig. 1 image is found titles the thread “Bigger Threat Than Global Warming: Mass Species Extinction” … it is good that we have a new measurement standard for threats, because “Terrorism Threat Level Orange” sounds so last decade. And since we already have been informed that global warming is a bigger threat than terrorism, we now have a complete multi-level threat scale — mass extinction > global warming > terrorism. I also like how no animals went extinct from 1700 to 1900. But I digress … here’s the real historical extinction picture since the year 1500, from my post cited above;

Figure 2. Mammal and Bird Extinctions. All causes, all locations. 17 year Gaussian average. The first recorded extinctions resulted from introduced species during the first wave of European exploration of the Western Hemisphere, mostly on Caribbean Islands. The second wave of extinctions is coincident with the spread of various colonial empires (and their concomitant introduced cats, rabbits, diseases, mongooses, rifles, rats, dogs, etc) through the 18th and 19th and into the 20th centuries.

I have pleaded for common sense in this question by asking, where are the corpses of all of these supposedly extinct species? I looked high and low for birds or mammals that had gone extinct through habitat reduction. I found none. I searched the Red List. I searched the CREO list. I started investigating this question of extinctions at the end of 2001, as a result of E. O. Wilson, Stuart Pimm, and other co-authors publishing their extinction claims (pdf) in December 2001 as a rebuttal to Lomborg’s “The Skeptical Environmentalist”.

By March 2002 I had written and privately circulated what eventually (with much interesting research and analysis omitted) became my 2010 WUWT blog post on extinction, “Where Are The Corpses”. By dint of burning gallons of midnight oil (organic CO2-free oil, I might add), it took me three months, while working full-time at a day job, to establish from the actual extinction records that Wilson was wrong. I tried to get the results of my analysis published in 2004 with no success. And fair enough, my submission was not in the best of shape. If I were the editor I might have turned me down. Although the ideas were all there, the problem was I didn’t speak the scientific dialect of Journalese all that well back then. Still don’t, for that matter. But all along I have said that the huge, overblown extinction numbers were a fantasy. And almost a decade later, the latest study in Nature agrees.

There are several lessons that I draw from all of this. I sometimes divide lessons into three piles—the good, the bad, and the interesting. First, the good. Science eventually is self-correcting. The claim that 27,000 species are going extinct every year and the “Sixth Wave of Extinctions” will end up in the trash-bin of alarmist scientific claims.

Next, the bad news. The self-correction is way, way too slow. The claim of extraordinary extinctions was made by E. O. Wilson in 1992. It’s 20 years later, and the process of throwing out the garbage is just begun. C’mon, folks, this the 21st century. We need to become much more skeptical overall. The self-correction process of science needs to start moving faster. We can no longer afford the delays occasioned by the blind acceptance of incorrect theories. Scientists these days are nowhere near suspicious enough. And there’s more bad news.

Once again, we have a “scientific consensus” which is based on heartfelt emotion rather than actual data. I see Wilson’s claim as the source of all of this. In 1992, he said that some 27,000 species were going extinct each year. When I read that, my Urban Legend Alarm started ringing loud enough for Helen Keller to notice. I said “No way that can be right, the number’s way too big” … and it appears I was correct.

Unfortunately, this claim fit right in with the environmentalists reasonable desire to minimize clear-cutting of tropical forests. Confirmation bias raised its ugly head, and as a result the extinction numbers were never examined. Instead, the bogus claim immediately found its way onto bumper stickers and T-shirts and rainforest campaigns.

Now, I grew up in the middle of the forest, with no neighbors for miles, and I love the forest. So don’t get me wrong. The problem was not the environmentalists’ legitimate desire to properly protect or  manage the forest.

The problem was the bogus claim of thousands of extinctions, a claim that unfortunately fit too perfectly into the reasonable desire to stop wantonly clear-cutting the rainforest. Here at last was the magic bullet, the way to the public’s consciousness (and wallet). It fit so well that nobody wanted to listen to their own urban legend alarms. Nobody wanted to be the one to say “27,000 extinctions a year since 1992 … that’s half a million species that are supposed to be dead … how come we haven’t seen any of them yet?”. So as in the CO2 debacle, the environmental movement once again, and from the best of motives, threw its not inconsiderably weight behind bogus science.

That’s the good and the bad, now for the interesting part. How does such a consensus persist? Generally, by special pleading. If you can’t argue the pig, you argue the squeal.

For example, one of the main exponents of the species/area consensus on extinctions is Dr. Stuart Pimm. He was one of the authors of the attack on The Skeptical Environmentalist that I mentioned above. He was also courageous enough to comment on this issue on the thread Anthony started that I cited above, and that gets my respect. I like to see a man who is willing to publicly stand up for his ideas.

Dr. Pimm says that his studies have shown that the species area relationship is actually borne out by the evidence. In his comment to that thread, he lays out his explanation in one of my favorite ways, the “thought experiment”, as follows:

Imagine destruction that wipes out 95% of the habitat in an area metaphorically “overnight”. How many species have disappeared “the following morning”? The paper tells you. It is not many, just those wholly restricted to the 95% (and absent from the 5% where they would survive). The important question is …

How many of additional species living lonely lives in their isolated patches (the 5%) would become extinct eventually because their population sizes are too small to be viable? A different species-area curve applies — the one for islands, which are isolated. It is a much larger number of extinctions, of course, and the one used in the studies mentioned above that find such compelling agreement between predicted against observed extinctions.

That sounds right … if his species/area relationship theory is correct. Some species would go extinct immediately. The rest would follow an exponential decay from that time to when they reach their new equilibrium. So we’d see an immediate effect, then a decreasing number of extinctions as the years went by until the final equilibrium was reached. If his theory is correct.

But when I read Dr. Pimm’s actual work, I don’t find the names of actual species that have gone extinct from habitat reduction. I don’t find “compelling agreement between predicted against observed extinctions”. Instead, I find things like this example, from “Timeline Between Deforestation and Bird Extinction in Tropical Forest Fragments” :

Our previous work employs the familiar, empirical relationship between the size of an area, A, and the number of species it contains, S, to predict how many species should eventually be lost when forest area is reduced. We have two cases studies: the Atlantic Forest region of South America (Brooks & Balmford 1996) and the islands of Southeast Asia (Brooks et al. 1997). The global survey of Collar et al. (1994) includes lists of the bird species threatened with extinction in these regions. The predicted numbers of species lost from deforestation closely match these independently compiled totals of threatened species. This match suggests that these threatened species will indeed become extinct in due course and thus that we can predict the eventual species losses.

Note that the “species/area relationship” being applied to extinctions is described as the “familiar, empirical relationship”. This is an indication of the strength of the consensus regarding the claimed relationship.

OK. What’s wrong with the logic in Dr. Pimm’s paragraph?

His logic goes as follows. Having noticed that there have not been any bird extinctions from habitat reduction, he explains this by saying that the birds are “destined for extinction”. His species/area relationship predicts a certain number of extinctions. He finds that according to the Red List, about that same number of birds are “threatened with extinction”. This, he says, shows that his estimates are very reasonable, supporting the idea that the species/area relationship is correct.

There are two problems with that. The first is a problem with the evidence. Even if we assume a fairly long period until the calculated number of species goes extinct, the cutting of the tropical forests has been going on for many decades now. Plus as Dr. Pimm says, some species, perhaps not a lot but certainly some, should have gone extinct immediately. So from those two effects, we should have seen some bird and mammal extinctions by now. But we haven’t seen those predicted extinctions from habitat reduction. This makes his claim very doubtful from the start.

So that’s a problem with the evidence. I go through the actual numbers in “Where Are The Corpses?“. By now, if we really were in the midst of the “Sixth Wave of Extinctions”, someone should be able to point to dozens of bird and mammal species that have gone extinct from habitat reduction even if the extinctions occur very slowly. So the evidence doesn’t support his claim.

(Let me digress a moment and request that people not say “but what about the quagga, it’s extinct”, or “you left that noble bird, the nimble-fingered purse-snatcher, off the list of bird extinctions”. CREO says the quagga is extant under a valid species name, but that’s not the point. I don’t wish to be sidetracked into debating the reality of one or two extinctions. According to Wilson we should have seen dozens and dozens of bird and mammal extinctions by now. Unless you know where those missing dozens and dozens of extinctions are, I don’t want to debate whether I should have included the extinction of the double-breasted seersucker. End of digression.)

Those are problems with the evidence. But what’s wrong with Dr. Pimm’s logic?

The problem with the logic is a bit more subtle. If you go to the Red List, yes, you will find that those birds he mentions are indeed listed as being threatened with extinction. So at first blush, it seems this supports his “species/area relationship” claim.

But why does the Red List say those birds are threatened with extinction?

Well … in most instances, because of loss of habitat … which they say leads to the grave threat of extinction because that is what’s predicted by the species/area relationship. 

So Dr. Pimm’s logic is perfectly circular. As long as we accept that there is a mathematical relationship (species/area) between habitat reduction and extinctions, we can show that there is a mathematical relationship between habitat reduction and extinctions. We just declare species that have lost habitat as “Threatened With Extinction”, and presto! We now have the evidence to support the “species/area relationship”.

And since in the 21st century there is hardly a bird or mammal species which has not lost habitat, this allows the placing of more and more species onto the “threatened” lists. It also allows the putative cause called “habitat reduction” to be added to virtually any animal on the Red List … but there’s a huge problem.

The dang creatures just refuse to oblige by going extinct as Drs. Wilson and Pimm have been predicting for lo these many years. They won’t die, the cheeky beggars. Rather impolite of the birds and mammals, I’d say.

Finally, let me use this example to encourage people to use their common sense, to consider the “reasonableness” of the numbers that they encounter. The reality of the 21st century is that we need to run with our “bad number detectors” set to maximum gain. When someone claims that 27,000 species are going extinct every year, think about that number. Does it make sense? Does it seem to be a reasonable size? Extrapolate it out, that’s a quarter million species claimed to be going extinct per decade, a half million species since Wilson made the prediction. Is it reasonable that the world lost a half million species … but nobody can come up with any corpses?

Here is the rude truth about bird and mammal extinctions. Life is incredibly resilient. Once it gets started, it’s a bitch to stop. Almost all of the bird and mammal extinctions were the result of one species (specifically including humans) actively and tenaciously hunting another species to extinction. Most of the time this was an introduced species (specifically including Europeans during the waves of conquest and empire). The main extinction threat to mammals and birds around the planet has never been habitat reduction. It is species-on-species predation in its infinite variety. It was introduced brown tree snakes eating native birds in Guam, and humans hunting the Carolina Parakeets for their feathers to supply the millinery trade in New York.

And these days, of course, it is the “bushmeat” trade that is a huge threat to many African bird and mammal species, including rare and endangered primates. The idea that those species are threatened because of “habitat reduction” or “climate change” is a huge misdirection that obscures the real problems, which are the same problems as always … human predation and introduced species.

My regards to all,



• While I strongly advocate checking to see if numbers are reasonable, “reasonableness” is not in itself something to stand on. It is simply one part of the “smell test”. And the smell test can’t falsify anything. But it certainly can indicate where to take a hard mathematical or observational look to find out why the number seems so far out of range.

• I grew up in the forest. I live in the forest now. When I look out from my back deck I see nothing but redwoods and oaks and bay laurel, with a tiny triangle of ocean glimmering in the distance. I believe in protecting and managing and harvesting and preserving the forests. In addition, biodiversity is always of value to an ecosystem, increasing its stability, adaptability, and longevity. This article is about extinctions, not about whether the forest should be properly protected, harvested, and managed.

• I see that my previous comments have made it into the Wall Street Journal.

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June 1, 2011 5:17 pm

Thanks Willis
Now aren’t you glad European Starlings and English Sparrows aren’t endangered………….

June 1, 2011 5:29 pm

The Economist front page and magazine is devoted to man-made planet change. They propose to call a new geologic time – the Anthropocene.
This time, they and their largest shareholder “The Rothschilds” appear to have outdone themselves on alarmist bull crap.
Total garbage with worryingly fascist overtones.

Peter S
June 1, 2011 5:42 pm

This surely is a hoax!

Theo Goodwin
June 1, 2011 5:44 pm

You often produce brilliant work but this one is right at the top of the charts. It shows that commonsense is the handmaiden to science and without it science is lost. In addition, you help a whole host of non-scientists to see that the very best in the business, such as E. O. Wilson, can sign onto claims that are presented as supported by science but that have no support in empirical evidence and depend on circular reasoning.
That is the situation in so-called climate science today. The so-called theories are tautologies and the so-called empirical evidence is non-existent. We need a new principle along the lines of “Buyer Beware, ” maybe “Learner Beware.” The saddest part of being an educator today is that scepticism has been driven from the classroom, at least for the first two years of college, and replaced with a canned political correctness that has the appeal of Muzak. The Alinskyites have been so very successful.
By the way, the number one threat to song birds is The Ordinary House Cat, at least in urban, suburban, and similar areas. I think all the politically correct own a house cat. I cannot see one in the wild without feeling a pang for the birds.

June 1, 2011 5:48 pm

Human predation and introduced species. Well, yeah, I guess. I coulda thoughta that too, ya know.
Seriously now, congratulations on your simple, elegant and brilliant argument, Mr Eschenbach, and thanks for the “oh, yeah!” moment and the hours of upcoming mind-candy munching!

June 1, 2011 5:56 pm

Thank you so much Willis. I am privileged to live in the country surrounded by bird friends – Australian magpies and butcherbirds, who have adopted us into their families and show us their nests each year – even tell us where they will be nesting next year! For me the real tragedy is the senseless damage to the lives of real, actual animals, who I know from experience can feel all the same emotions that we do, who can form ‘theories of minds’ and communicate complex ideas across the species barrier into the minds of humans. (See for some of these stories.)
One of the most horrific websites I came across was that of the European Environment agency. I was appalled by its callous mathematisation of the deaths from wind farms, in the end ‘justified’ – as of course they had to do – because they concluded “no species would become extinct”. The sheer icy-heartedness of these so-called defenders of the environment shocked me. As you rightly point out, the extinction question and a false theory about it are massive red herrings preventing most people from understanding or counteracting the real threats to wildlife. Just as these faux environmentalists have no heart when it comes to real, actual suffering animals, they also have no heart concerning the many poor in the third world and the poor, indeed, in the west, who will suffer from the effects of their carbon taxes and trading schemes. As long as the bulk effect (species, groups, etc.) works out, they don’t care about individuals. And that’s very wrong.

June 1, 2011 5:57 pm

Oops, that was meant to be .

June 1, 2011 6:00 pm

Peter S says:
June 1, 2011 at 5:42 pm

This surely is a hoax!

Oh no – as a publicity stunt after the Million Man March several years ago in Washington DC, PITA announced the Million Microbe March. If was very sad. The day before the march someone accidentally autoclaved the petri dish.

June 1, 2011 6:13 pm

In a previous life, I was a Technical Editor on an International Medical Journal and I swiftly learned to live by the following maxim:
“Trust the Scientific Method, not the Scientist”
As you concluded, over time the legitimate position will usually be resolved, but in the short to medium term individual scientists and researchers are as corrupt, bitchy, self-serving and back-stabbing as any other academic. I learned to avoid referring certain authors to certain peer-reviewers because I knew they would be rejected out of hand for purely ad hominem motives. Particular departments within particular institutions were always suspect because of their habit of “salami-slicing” data to create multiple submissions to multiple journals in order to produce the greatest number of publications, irrespective of (usually worthless) merit.
We ignore the immediate, narcissistic agendas of individual scientists (tenure, excessive publication, personal vendettas, pure ego) at our peril. I wonder how many trillions will have been wasted before AGW is finally put to bed because of this.

June 1, 2011 6:16 pm

Willis – well written argued analysis, amazing stuff. The body count – where is it? Gotta love the “They won’t die, the cheeky beggars. Rather impolite of the birds and mammals, I’d say”.
Conversely – the opposite argument on ‘evolution’ should be true as well…..where are all of the NEW species – particularly in light of the ‘survival of the fittest’ meme? We should see all SORTS of failed or temporaryily advantaged evolutionary experiments around us – yet, they don’t seem to exist…. ?
To be devil’s advocate.

June 1, 2011 6:19 pm

27 000 per year?
so during the last 100 years, 2 700 000 have perished. That’s about 1 million more than some say is known to exist. Or a fourth of, what some “scientist” say is, the estimated number in existence.
I call it hippies trying to turn themselves into human bongs for trying to blow smoke up their own ar….
Firstly, they know squat all of the number of polar bears in existence.
Secondly, only a couple of percentages is known about the seas.
Thirdly, formerly dead ones are found to be very much alive and kicking every year.
Fourthly, they find new ones, never before known to the western stupendous bureaucrosociety every year, which numbers in the more than ten thousand some years.
Call me a tad bit oddish, but how can they conclusively say a specie is completely dead, even for all of their’s intent and purposes?
Some species dies off, that’s a fact of life. Is that bad?
Sa[ber] tooth tigres? Ok, going by the number of tigers, they would probably not cause much problems as long as people sta[ye]d at a distance.
Mammoth? The greatest sin of our ancestors according to some deranged hippies, that man offed all the mammoths, of course there’s no actual proof of it, but they believe it. But how many would want free roaming herds of mammoths in Europe and Russia, Mongolia, Ukraine, and China? The producers of tiger tanks would have been happy though to be the only guns big enough to learn the “stupid” animals to keep within their designated area . . .
If man was so great a hunter to off all the mammoths and sable tooth tigers, how come deers, moos’, and rabbits are still around? Sparrows, we hunt with nets, and have done so for a couple of thousands of years, but they’re still around. Bats and rats? Whales and seals? Dolphins? Sharks?
For several hundred years human kind has offed millions and millions of a limited set of animals, yet those animals are still around, but human kind gets blamed for “offing” critters nobody ever frakking hunted.
Could it be because when you push a plant around it grows ever stronger, but if you don’t care for it, it dies.

June 1, 2011 6:25 pm

jereny –
r u talking about this?
17 May: Independent UK: AFP: Extreme makeover: are humans reshaping Earth?
A growing number of scientists, some gathered at a one-day symposium this past week at the British Geological Society in London, say “yes”.
One among them, chemistry Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, has even suggested a new name: the Anthropocene…
An analogous fate could await humans if temperatures climb by five or six degrees Celsius, which climate scientists say could happen within a century…
Since Crutzen coined the term a decade ago, the Anthropocene has been eagerly adopted by scientists across a broad spectrum of disciplines.
“It triggered the realisation that we were in an entirely new era of planet Earth,” said Will Steffen, head of Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute…
For now, the man in the hot seat is University of Leicester professor Jan Zalasiewicz, who heads the group of geologists tasked with recommending whether the Anthropocene should be added to the 150-odd eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages into which the last 3.6 billion years of Earth’s history has been officially divided…
Evidence of abrupt change – on a geological time scale – wrought by human hands would seem to be overwhelming.
The burning of fossil fuels has altered the composition of the atmosphere, pushing the concentration of carbon dioxide to levels unseen at least for 800,000 years, perhaps for three million…
There have been five such wipeouts over the last half billion years, and most scientists agree that we have now entered the sixth, with species disappearing at 100 to 1,000 times the so-called “background” rate…
“We are sculpting the surface of the Earth,” said James Syvitski, a professor at the University of Colorado, pointing to two centuries of industrial-scale mining, damming, deforestation and agriculture.
Thousands of dams built since the mid-19th century have “completely altered the planet’s terrestrial plumbing,” he said.
By one key measure, at least, we already have: the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere – measured in parts per million – remained in a narrow range of 260 to 285 for nearly 12,000 years. Today is stands at 390 ppm, and is sure to rise considerably higher in coming decades…BLAH BLAH BLAH
care to pick this apart, Willis?

June 1, 2011 6:32 pm

Is that like Pita bread?
PETA in Michigan did offer money to a school system in my area to help save animals from extinction (tic)

tim maguire
June 1, 2011 6:33 pm

But does a lack of mass extinction among birds and mammals answer the issue? Granted, most of us care most about these, but there are plenty of other fish in the sea, bugs in the canopy, etc. My guess is the people talking about a 6th wave of extinction are including many more creatures than are counted in your studies.

June 1, 2011 6:37 pm

My son is wearing his PETA t-shirt to school tomorrow (true) 🙂
People Eating Tasty Animals.

June 1, 2011 6:42 pm

“This time, they [The Economist] and their largest shareholder ‘The Rothschilds’ appear to have outdone themselves on alarmist bull crap.” (jereny, June 1, 2011 at 5:29 pm )
“The Financial Times Limited, which is a Pearson subsidiary, owns 50% of the share capital of The Economist Group but does not have a controlling interest. The bulk of the remaining 50% is owned by individuals including members of the Rothschild banking family of England. ” (Wikipedia)
“Current members of the board of directors of the Economist Group are: Helen Alexander CBE, Sir David Bell, Rona Fairhead, John Gardiner, Philip Mengel, John Micklethwait, Nigel Morris, Simon Robertson, Lynn Forester de Rothschild, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, and Chris Stibbs….Current trustees of the company are: Lord Renwick of Clifton, Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone, and Clayton Brendish. Former trustees include Lord Alexander of Weedon.(Ibid.)
What? Those sinister Rothschilds seem to be a lost in a gaggle of Foresters, Coddenhams, Bottomleys and Micklewaiths! Times they are a-changing; a couple of minutes on Wiki, a little second-grade math, and “poof!” goes again an age-old canard. Well, probably not as far as nitwits are concerned, but that’s the way it goes.

Al Gored
June 1, 2011 7:06 pm

Great job again Willis. As a very long time student of wildlife and conservation history I thought your post “Where Are The Corpses“ was an excellent summary… though Obama may think it was about the Marines.
Your point about model based predictions – soooo familiar here – is dead on. The worst case I know of is in Canada, British Columbia, where COSEWIC, the federal body that determines such things, decided that a bird called the Williamson’s Sapsucker should be listed as ‘Endangered’ based on model projections of logging rates that were borderline absurd to begin with and then never happened. Still no change.
Gets better. That species, like MOST bird species listed as Endangered or Threatened in Canada, is at the extreme northern margins of its range and is doing just fine in the U.S. This use of political boundaries as well as the invention of alleged subspecies and ‘distinct geographic populations’ swell the listed numbers enormously. And for the public, the fact that most species and inventions on these ‘endangered’ species lists are not endangered or even close to that adds still more confusion.
Lots of reasons why this game is used. Can be used for all sorts of land use agendas and it creates lots of jobs for ‘researchers’ and lawyers. All they need this crisis the same way the AGW research-industrial complex needs the Planetary Fever.
Save the pikas!

Mike O
June 1, 2011 7:08 pm

The big issue ignored by the extinction crowd is the fact that formerly farmed land is being reforested at a much higher rate than new forest is being cut! The NY Times of all places estimated that for every acre of rainforest cut, 50 acres of farmland were abandoned to return back to forest by people leaving the land and moving to the cities. They also stated that the biodiversity of these newly forested acres quickly moved back to equal that of the virgin state.

Physics Major
June 1, 2011 7:16 pm

Sometimes science is so easy. You just make things up.

June 1, 2011 8:13 pm

Peter Kovachev,
This is verbatim from The Economist Group website:
“The “A” special shares are held by individual shareholders including the Cadbury, Rothschild, Schroder and other family interests as well as a number of staff and former staff shareholders.
The “B” special shares are all held by The Financial Times Limited which holds 50% of the total share capital of the company excluding the trust shares.
The trust shares are held by trustees, whose consent is needed for certain corporate activities, including the transfer of “A” special and “B” special shares. The rights attaching to the trust shares provide for the continued independence of the ownership of the company and the editorial independence of The Economist. Apart from these rights, they do not include the right to vote, receive dividends or have any other economic interest in the company. The appointments of the editor of The Economist and of the chairman of the company are subject to the approval of the trustees.
The general management of the business of the company is under the control of the Board of directors. There are 13 seats allowable on the Board, seven of which may be appointed by holders of the “A” special shares and six by the holders of the “B” special shares. ”
If you read the annual report of The Economist Group then by virtue of Special A shares (the Rothschild’s have about 20% or 240,000 shares) they have heavy influence over the Board of Directors. Evelyn Rothschild was Chairman of the Board for 16 years (1972 to 1989). His wife is on the board now.
So who looks like the nitwit now?
No conspiracy theory here but for sure those in power/control will have influence on the direction of a company – even a news magazine. And I think there is no doubt that there must be some agenda behind all this alarmist nonsense – it could be as mundane as simply trying to compete with National Enquirer for sensationalist news and to attract readers but given the educated readership of The Economist, I suspect it is not that simple..

June 1, 2011 8:32 pm

As some famous scientists have said, “Species preservation is unnatural.”

June 1, 2011 9:09 pm

I note PITA is a wholly-owned subsidiary of “Spin”Tronics. Say no more.

Eric Anderson
June 1, 2011 9:22 pm

Then there is the little matter about the formerly-extinct species. Over the past few years there have been a number of species found which were formerly thought to be extinct.
The long past extinction numbers (meaning millions of years ago) is apparently vastly overstated as well, and, as I understand it, was based on estimates/models of how many species there should have been if such-and-such a theory were true . . .

Doug in Seattle
June 1, 2011 9:32 pm

The ESA is nothing more than a tool to dismantle America.
It long ago ceased to be about protecting species. The level that it works on isn’t species anyway, its local population. That way they get to define the salmon as a separate species for each watershed, or each valley has its own grey spider or spotted toad.
The possibilities are endless as we now see every project endangered by some up to now unheard of species that if placed in another location would easilty breed with that location’s “unique” species.

Cassie King
June 1, 2011 10:34 pm

Scare stories sell the narrative, to frighten people enables an element of control. Groups have found that playing on peoples fears is very profitable both in financial and political terms. A short cut to control and power, make people frightened enough of some imaginary enemy or supposed disaster and they are putty in your hands, scare people sufficiently and there is almost no limit to what they will do.
The role of fear as a potent weapon of control has a long history, those who use the weapon of fear do so because it almost always trumps civilised normal and rational political and social discourse. What of the people who use this method? In general they believe the ends justify the means, any method no matter how evil is rationalised to be good because the ends are perceived to be good.
When you fight monsters take care that you do not become a monster in the process, when you look into that particular abyss that abyss will certainly look into you. Fear and guilt, the two most potent political and social weapons of those people who cannot win by democratic and normal positive values. Just suppose that the scaremongers told only the truth, the bare unvarnished truth?
No mass extinctions, no mass die offs, life is very hardy and very hard to kill. But also the biggest strength of life on earth is its ability to accommodate change and evolve, without this gift there would be no life, 99.9% of species that have ever walked the earth are now extinct and that is not something to be mourned but rather celebrated because it proves that life is dynamic, species come and go, make their mark and disappear, evolve and change to suit an ever changing planetary cradle.
Fear is the lazy persons route to power, it is also the stupid persons way to power, it never works in the end, it destroys the power seekers every bit as much as it destroys those who are abused along the way, what you do to me you do to yourself. And yet the lessons of the past are repeated again and again by those new generations who believe that they can ride the tiger of ‘fear power’ people never learn do they? An easy route to power over others, a short cut to exert political and social control over others, the quick method of getting people to obey you and it always ends the same way and still people are taken in by it.
If only people would learn the lessons of the past. Those who would try and frighten you into a series of actions are not worth listening to and in fact they are without exception too dangerous to listen to, millions have dies on the alter of this ‘fear power’, it should be made illegal in fact, it should be a criminal act to inflict fear in order to advance a socio political narrative.

June 1, 2011 10:41 pm

Great post, Willis.
A small example why the predictions are wrong:
In the last few years, Seals, which were absent for decades from northern Israel’s shores, have reappeared. And they seem healthy and strong (only a few, but it is a start).
This is after we were totally convinced by the “experts” that the Mediterranean was barren.
So the logic of “We assume it is so, hence it is so” is false.
And in a different note: I envy you on your house location – even if I too am living in quite a rural area.

June 1, 2011 10:52 pm

Some years back, I remember listening to a radio interview with Dr. Patrick Moore (of Greenpeace fame or notoriety as he’s had a falling out with them). Dr. Moore kept hearing statements about 17,000 to 100,000 species were vanishing per year. He decided to trace down the source of this statement. It took time as each environmental group was repeating the quote from other environmental groups. He eventually traced it to a computer model running on E. O. Wilson’s PC.

June 1, 2011 11:47 pm

I have lamented several times about who out there could replace Dr. McIntyre, should he decide put R to rest and go mining. In my humble opinion, your are definately a contender. Steve M has such a dry taste. Yours, not as much.
Your posts have become a must read for me. I thank you again for all your hard work.

June 2, 2011 12:38 am

It is not clear from this what Wilson was referring to when he claims 27000 and what evidence he was using. You seem to be concentrating on birds and mammals only. No mention of insects, reptiles plants whatever.
One estimate for birds and mammals after a quick and careless Google is 0.44 per year.

John Marshall
June 2, 2011 1:32 am

If species did not go extinct this planet would be very crowded.
These people never mention the new species discovered every year.

June 2, 2011 1:39 am

You’ve done it again, Willis. Thanks for another informative post…

June 2, 2011 1:49 am

Facinating ,it seems the critters did best when we were trying to exterminate ourselves 1914-1918 and 39-45.
Shhhhh…don`t tell the bunny huggers.Who knows what the next campaign might be?

June 2, 2011 1:51 am

Willis, thanks for another lovely piece. Your combination of logic, the scientific method, maths, and your ability to communicate with a total absence of b.s. but with a warm countryman’s humour does it for me every time.
You remind me of some the men under whose shade and protection I was raised – they were all rural men, old soldiers and survivors of the World Wars and the Great Depression, hard, weathered, literate, numerate despite most of them being long gone from school to work by the age of twelve or thirteen. Poetry, story-telling, figuring out how everything worked and being totally competent at everything they did made them a great set of role models but a damned hard act to follow, but I owe it to their memories to try. One of them, who tended to make acid comments about the value of many technological advances which he maintained made people mentally lazy, was challenged to a race by a young nephew who worked in a bank; the young feller turned up at the old bloke’s house with the latest in mechanical calculators borrowed from his bank. It was huge and heavy, had a keypad and a sturdy crank with a knurled handle mounted on one side. The two of them decided on racing to add an extensive column of five-digit numbers. When the young nephew said “go!” they went at it; the old feller looked at the column of figures for a few minutes, then wrote down his total, sat back and smiled. His nephew was half-way done. When the nephew cranked out the last total, he looked up, grinned, and said
“By God, Uncle, you are a hard man to best! And your total is dead right.”

June 2, 2011 2:10 am

If anyone is counting the undoubted extinctions in New Zealand, please be aware that the fauna and flora in NZ evolved for millions of years in the total absence of any mammals, apart from bats. Many species of birds, e.g. the Kiwi, are unable to fly, because there was no need for them to do so. With the accidental introduction of rats and the deliberate introduction of stoats and cats and other predators, the flightless birds don’t have a show. At great expense we help endangered species survive on offshore islands and onshore sanctuaries surrounded by predator-proof fences.
None of that has anything to do with climate change.

June 2, 2011 2:14 am

Ric Werme says: June 1, 2011 at 6:00 pm
The day before the march someone accidentally autoclaved the petri dish.

Now that is VERY funny, thanks.
And thank you Willis for yet again another article; well researched and elucidated.
Your comment on ‘the 6th wave of extinction’ meme being difficult to extinguish is likely very correct.
Is this due to arguments for various species having been aggregated under a common thematic and thus normalised? Displacing discrete observation and comment?
Thinking of you and your family, as you wrote in a previous post that your wife is busy looking after her father, who is very ill. All the best.

June 2, 2011 2:46 am

How are the polar bears doing? Rock steady Eddy.
“But the polar bears are drowning. Ahhhhhh!”

A polar bear swam continuously for over nine days, covering 687km (426 miles), a new study has revealed.”
BBC – 2011

Polar bears are more resilient than previously thought. They survived an ice free Arctic ocean!

June 2, 2011 2:47 am

How are the polar bears doing? Rock steady Eddy.
“But the polar bears are drowning. Ahhhhhh!”

A polar bear swam continuously for over nine days, covering 687km (426 miles), a new study has revealed.”
BBC – 2011

Polar bears are more resilient than previously thought. They survived an ice free Arctic ocean!

June 2, 2011 2:51 am

There are estimated to be 10,000 species of bird and 5,000 species of mammal. Seems from the graph that we aren’t having such a big impact.
Scientists have a tendency to believe that species population numbers would be relatively static were it not for the intervention of humans. From what I have observed of common birds in my own back yard this isn’t the case. Sometimes the egg-eating birds like magpies are so vast in number in my locale that they easily prey on all the eggs and young of the smaller birds resulting in devastation of their numbers. Having demolished their own food supply the magpie numbers dwindle and this gives the opportunity for the populations of smaller birds to flourish.
In the UK magpie populations have trebled over the last 30 years but sparrow populations have declined. But this year I have seen far fewer magpies in my locale but huge numbers of sparrows all making nests in the guttering of every house in the street.
I believe that populations of all animals naturally decline precipitously and then recover explosively depending on natural predation. This makes sense if you consider that evolution may have anything to with the development of those animals in the first place – for the term “survival of the fittest” to have any meaning then you must have regular periods of near extinction to filter out the majority of those animals that are not so well adapted to the cause of their near extinction. Scientists seem to want to believe in evolution but also believe that population numbers of species remain fairly static but these are actually contradictory.

June 2, 2011 2:54 am

Ric Werme says:
June 1, 2011 at 6:00 pm
Peter S says:
June 1, 2011 at 5:42 pm
This surely is a hoax!
Oh no – as a publicity stunt after the Million Man March several years ago in Washington DC, PITA announced the Million Microbe March. If was very sad. The day before the march someone accidentally autoclaved the petri dish.
!!!!! Gosh….millions wiped out callously!
How ethical are antibiotics? Sorry, can’t help the sarcasm.

Henry Galt
June 2, 2011 3:57 am

Bullseye Willis. Another of my boxes ticked; Numerous modern species extinction = wrong. Care to have a go at the Big Bang 😉
Theo, in the UK it is far worse than just watching predators destroy our bird-life. You cannot mention it, as we are “a nation of animal lovers” don’tcha know, but due to pet food legislation (regular samples must be eaten by humans to shown fitness for consumption) we import many tons of high quality meat every day. A fair amount from South American factories who obtain their material largely from areas previously forested, process it and load it onto a container ship that burns bunker fuel all the way to Rotterdam so it may be distributed to the pussy owner’s local supermarket.
The aforementioned “owner” then spends as much, or more, every week for many years, as it takes to sustain an entire family in some countries to “keep” their “companion” in the manner to which it has become accustomed. I laugh at the levels of pet insurance here also. Anyone insular enough to crave the company of a wild animal rather than speak to/make friends with their neighbours and sponsor a human child deserves all the fleecing they can get, especially as they willingly, if entirely ignorantly/thoughtlessly, contribute to destruction of habitat, real pollution of atmosphere and murder on a grand scale.
Don’t get me started on pedigree dogs and their “owners”……

June 2, 2011 4:11 am

PITA, that kind of organization could kind of grow on you (or in you)

Alan the Brit
June 2, 2011 4:22 am

You never cease to amaze me withh your flwaless logic! Can you spare about 5%?

June 2, 2011 5:08 am

Just out of curiosity, has anyone compared natural extinction rates to evolution rates? This thought just popped into my head. Seems to me in a slowly changing environment (slow being relative to the reproduction rate of whatever species is being discussed) that natural selection will drive species change toward whatever the new environment will support, and eventually the old unchanged species will not be able to compete, and the new changed species will be dominant. Presto, we have an extinction of sorts, but a continuous line of genetic inheritance. This of course does not apply if we have introduced voracious housecats or rats into an environment where the pickings are easy.

June 2, 2011 5:20 am

PITA, fantastic!
PITA needs a campaign featuring some nakedness; how about “I’d rather die naked than taking antibiotics against my diarrhea?”

June 2, 2011 5:30 am

There is a major problem in the definition of ‘species’ for a start. This has life scientists locked in never-ending argument.
There is also a definitional lag, because in some places a species has to have been out of sight for 50 years or whatever before gaining the extinct category. It’s like the missing heat in the pipeline. A travesty.
Practical problems.
Many of the extinctions, of birds in particular, are on tiny isolated islands. It was accidents of history that gave most of these islands to Australia, but Australians get the blame. We are really bad bastards, though the vast majority of us have never been to these islands to kill anything. The basic problem is, with small populations and limited history, who can tell if ‘species’ like these are on a trajectory to greater numbers, or close to unaided extinction? Darwinism would suggest that on a small isolated area, diversity arising from a species is a sign of increase. The birds that died on Australia’s islands did not seem to diversify, so they could have been headed for natural extinction.
So what’s that got to do with Global Warming?

June 2, 2011 5:50 am

Looks like PITA is already having an effect on governments. Just a few days ago the UN decided to preserve the extremely endangered smallpox virus!

Bloke down the pub
June 2, 2011 5:59 am

A while back I watched a very interesting programme on the marhlands of Southern Iraq. In his attempts to subdue the people of that region, Saddam Hussein drained thousands of square miles of the marshes and turned them into a desert. One of nature’s victims of this act was a small waterbird that was found nowhere else in the world. Strangely enough, when local enviromentalists suceeded in re-flooding some of the area, the marshes re-established themselves and this bird returned from who knows where. Amazing how resilient nature can be.

June 2, 2011 6:06 am

Consider the dangers of misplaced environmental protection. Songbirds have been all but wiped out by human settlements. Not by humans, but by crows that breed in large numbers using garbage from cities as a food source. These large numbers of crows also feed on the eggs and nestling of the songbirds, eradicating them near human settlements. These same crows are typically protected by environmental regulations which ignore the harm that results.

June 2, 2011 6:09 am

Here in Africa we are about to lose the last of the Rhino which is unspeakably sad.
It isn’t because of loss of habitat, climate change or natural causes. It’s because Asian men think it will cure pecker problems and cancer and Yemenis who like to use the horn as a dagger handle.
Watching Greenpeace types swashbuckle around Japanese whaling ships makes me wonder how much effort it would take for them to protect the Rhino from independent and government sponsored poachers.
Good work Willis, you are improving with every article and that’s not easy.

June 2, 2011 6:12 am

“Just out of curiosity, has anyone compared natural extinction rates to evolution rates?”
It has been obsered that any time there is a mass extinction, many new species suddenly appear. It is though nature is always wating in the wings to try out new species, all that is required is an opportunity. The existing species in any environment normally work to prevent this, but consuming the available resources.
This then argues that extinction is no threat to nature. Nature creates new species all the time to take advantage of any opportunity. That the extinction of a species is simply an opportunity for a new species.

June 2, 2011 6:43 am

starzmom says:
June 2, 2011 at 5:08 am
“Just out of curiosity, has anyone compared natural extinction rates to evolution rates? This thought just popped into my head. Seems to me in a slowly changing environment (slow being relative to the reproduction rate of whatever species is being discussed) that natural selection will drive species change toward whatever the new environment will support, and eventually the old unchanged species will not be able to compete, and the new changed species will be dominant. Presto, we have an extinction of sorts, but a continuous line of genetic inheritance. ”
The creation rate of new species must be higher than the natural extinction rate, otherwise there couldn’t be an estimated 30 million species. Furthermore the rate of evolution goes up over time. The number of species follows an exponential curve, indicating that the rate of evolution goes up. Probably, over time architectural changes in the organisms facilitated gene mixing, mutation and selection. For instance, microbes can exchange genetic material, increasing their diversity, something that they developed some time along the way – todays microbes are probably much more advanced than the first ones. Similarly, the invention of males and females facilitated gene mixing for higher organisms.
See Ray Kurzweil’s essay about The Law Of Accelerating Returns at .

June 2, 2011 6:44 am

I gather Michael Crichton also noticed that the extinction figured were merely inferred from habitat area.
“But how do they know that?” should be a common sense starting point and the essential meaning of “scepticism”

June 2, 2011 6:53 am

We all enjoy your contributions Willis,
Just make sure your head doesn’t explode and deny us these pleasures.

Matt Skaggs
June 2, 2011 7:46 am

A shockingly weak piece by one of my favorite writers. Where are the corpses? Extinction is caused by a lack of births, not an excess of deaths. Also, you cherry-picked birds and mammals because the extinction rate is obscured by population dynamics, while ignoring the extinction that is occurring literally in your backyard. If you want to find “dozens and dozens” of recent extinctions, just peruse the list of plants in a Jepson’s rare plant index that were earlier documented but now cannot be confirmed to still be extant. (And yes, I am willfully ignoring your deceptive modifier of “birds and mammals.”) The fact is that many habitats have been “centimated” (reduced by an order of 100 or so), and if you do not believe that will lead to extinction, you are not using common sense. Dr. Pimm’s thought experiment made it about as simple as it can get, you really should pay attention. You are also guilty of associating the number 27,000 with “birds and mammals.” Wilson gained his field experience as an ant researcher.

Hans H
June 2, 2011 8:04 am

Another great post. Thanks, Willis! I thoroughly enjoy your writings. Everytime.

June 2, 2011 8:18 am

Matt Skaggs says:
June 2, 2011 at 7:46 am
“A shockingly weak piece by one of my favorite writers.”
Do i sense the typical introduction of a concern troll here?

June 2, 2011 8:37 am

“This is verbatim from The Economist Group website….” (Jeremy, June 1, 2011 at 8:13 pm)
And this is “verbatim” from me, Jeremy: I interpret your gratuitous and factually faulty “introduction” of the Rothschilds vis a vis The Economist as a clumsy, cowardly and nauseating attempt to slyly introduce a rather common antisemitic canard into this discussion. Whenever I’m in the mood and wish to battle antisemites and conspiracists, I go slumming on their forums. They always “win,” of course, because their “theories” are inherently unfalsifiable. Here, I will not be a party to enabling wing-nuttery in any form, not only because it’s against Anthony’s rules to bring in trash, but because in our uphill battle with Warmists, conspiracism and antisemitism from the lunatic fringe only muddy the waters and distract from the real issues.

Mikael Pihlström
June 2, 2011 8:47 am

Willis, you get it wrong from the first sentence (why am I not surprised):
“the recent paper in Nature (paywalled, reported here) on extinctions agreed with the main conclusion that I had established in my post “Where Are The Corpses“. The conclusion was that the “species/area relationship” as currently used doesn’t work to predict extinctions, and thus there is no “Sixth Wave of Extinctions” going on.”
The authors of the Nature piece actually say:
“Although we conclude that extinctions caused by habitat loss require greater loss of habitat than previously thought, our results must not lead to complacency about extinction due to habitat loss, which is a real and growing threat.”
(direct quotation from their abstract –

Theo Goodwin
June 2, 2011 8:50 am

Matt Skaggs says:
June 2, 2011 at 7:46 am
“Extinction is caused by a lack of births, not an excess of deaths.”
Uhhhh…..and these two are not connected? Maybe not in computer models.
“Also, you cherry-picked birds and mammals because the extinction rate is obscured by population dynamics, while ignoring the extinction that is occurring literally in your backyard. If you want to find “dozens and dozens” of recent extinctions, just peruse the list of plants in a Jepson’s rare plant index that were earlier documented but now cannot be confirmed to still be extant.”
Have the commonsense to understand that Willis is talking about something that interests him, birds and animals. As for myself, if a bazillion plant species go extinct in the Amazon, I would expect a serious scientist to offer an argument as to why anyone should care about ANY ONE of the extinctions.

June 2, 2011 9:32 am

>> Matt Skaggs says:
June 2, 2011 at 7:46 am
Wilson gained his field experience as an ant researcher. <<
Is there any way we can hasten the extinction of the fire ant?

June 2, 2011 9:37 am

>> Mikael Pihlström says:
June 2, 2011 at 8:47 am
The authors of the Nature piece actually say:
“Although we conclude that extinctions caused by habitat loss require greater loss of habitat than previously thought, our results must not lead to complacency about extinction due to habitat loss, which is a real and growing threat.” <<
Are you that dense that you can't recognize that such statements are routinely thrown in as meaningless appeasements for activist referees.

June 2, 2011 9:43 am

Al Gored says:
Gets better. That species, like MOST bird species listed as Endangered or Threatened in Canada, is at the extreme northern margins of its range and is doing just fine in the U.S. This use of political boundaries as well as the invention of alleged subspecies and ‘distinct geographic populations’ swell the listed numbers enormously.
A large portion of the border between Canada and the US is literally a line someone drew on a map. Thus it follows no geographical features at all. Thus there no possible way any species other than humans could possibly be aware of such a border.

June 2, 2011 9:45 am

OK, the “PITA” ad is definitely in the “coffee on the screen” category. LOLOL!

Matt Skaggs
June 2, 2011 9:55 am

Species extinction has been convincingly shown (by Raup and others) to a be a random walk with an absorbing boundary. That means that mathematically, population size is contingent upon so many variables that are so poorly controlled that it is best modeled as random. The absorbing boundary is zero organisms, after which the population never rises again. The closer a species is to the boundary, the more likely it will go extinct. We cannot predict which among the populations reduced by habitat loss will hit the boundary, but we can safely assume that more will hit it than would have if their population remained large. Simple really.

Mikael Pihlström
June 2, 2011 9:58 am

Tom_R says:
June 2, 2011 at 9:37 am
>> Mikael Pihlström says:
June 2, 2011 at 8:47 am
The authors of the Nature piece actually say:
“Although we conclude that extinctions caused by habitat loss require greater loss of habitat than previously thought, our results must not lead to complacency about extinction due to habitat loss, which is a real and growing threat.” <<
Are you that dense that you can't recognize that such statements are routinely thrown in as meaningless appeasements for activist referees.
If you had read Steve Hubbell 's original work even to the extent I have,
you would know that he is absolutely sincere on this and a fine scholar.
Anyways, one is certainly not allowed to so grossly misrepresent the original article
wording as Willis did, especially since he himself linked to the abstarct in question.

Brian H
June 2, 2011 11:12 am

Peter S says:
June 1, 2011 at 5:42 pm
This surely is a hoax!

What was your first clue?
In case you’d missed all the others, the last line of fine print at the bottom sez:
“Tax-exempt status documents available upon subpoena.”

June 2, 2011 11:42 am

Dang, a big juicy article on a subject that I am knowledgeable in, and I am tied up with writing unit tests 🙁
Out of curiosity, does anyone know which museum hold the holotype for the passenger pigeon? Skin mounts don’t count.
BTW, I am wearing my “‘Endangered Species’ /w picture of man” shirt. The moonbats love it but don’t know me very well so they don’t get the joke 😀

June 2, 2011 12:22 pm

Willis, you omitted the peck-headed wood-wrecker.

June 2, 2011 1:03 pm

Here in the UK we have just finished a nation-wide, public survey of “garden” birds that shows dozens of bird species have all but disappeared since the previous such survey in the 70’s. The population of Magpies, for example, has plummeted during this period. This work must have excluded my home town of Southport, near Liverpool, because we are knee-deep in Magpies! Sparrows, starlings, robins, cuckoos, blackbirds and lots of other birds on the edge of “extinction” are also in great abundance. These sorts of “survey” are jolly good fun, but make for very poor science.
Willis, it looks like you’ll have to get straight to work on this one, before you are hit by the Seventh Wave of Extinctions.

June 2, 2011 1:21 pm

Peter Kovachev,
You infer far too much into what I wrote. My comments could equally apply to any suitably powerful and influential family/group/business – no matter what their alleged race/religion. I did not attack race or religion and will absolutely not go there. I have total respect for race/religion in so much as it does not impinge on the rights of minors or females (some paternalistic religions certainly do – but that is a whole other discussion).
I simply made a political remark/speculation about what kind of agenda/influence is behind a news magazine that knowingly and continuously (at least recently) spouts total alarmist nonsense. You Sir, decided my comments were about race/religion and unfortunately your subsequent aspersions and ad hominem attacks are as totally unprofessional as they are completely unjustified.
In any case, I humbly apologize for any ill feeling or anger this may have caused you and will drop the entire subject henceforth. IMHO, the idle banter conducted on these excellent forums should not be cause for upsetting another citizen’s day. Good day, Sir.

June 2, 2011 1:22 pm

Well done, again, Willis. What IS it that makes so many people believe in falling skies?
It should also be noted that once a species gets on the endangered list, it is almost impossible to get it back off. The spotted owl is a good example (although it’s now in trouble because of encroachment of the barred owl).

June 2, 2011 1:28 pm

A note on the relationship between habitat area and extinction, England between lets say 1500 and 2000, 500 years a major reduction in habitat ( in moonbat units) and what, no major extinctions! Oh my. Life adapts, that’s what life does.

Al Gored
June 2, 2011 1:37 pm

DesertYote says:
June 2, 2011 at 11:42 am
“Out of curiosity, does anyone know which museum hold the holotype for the passenger pigeon? Skin mounts don’t count.”
What exactly are you looking for?

June 2, 2011 2:26 pm

Al Gored
June 2, 2011 at 1:37 pm
The holotype on which the species and genus are erected. I got curious about this about a decade ago when I noticed that the story of the much celebrated “Passenger Pigeon” extinction started to change slightly. So much of the old and new versions do not make much sense, plus most of the “facts”, like this, that we learned in school, are completely bogus. I got suspicious and started to research, and to my surprise could not find any real data, only a couple of skin mounts at the Smithsonian.
I can normally find just about any record on any type of fish in a few hours, and not just the holotypes, but most collect records.
BTW, there use to be a very common species of hare in the SW US. They were hunted to extinction to make curios for gift shops. I have seen a few rare mounted specimens in some Arizona back country tourist traps, the relics of a by gone era. The animal was called a jack-a-lope.

Wayne Richards
June 2, 2011 2:29 pm

In my childhood in British Columbia we used to have several zillion garter snakes in Victoria and Vancouver. They were useful to us gardeners: they ate slugs and snails.
Now they’re gone, except for isolated pockets such as the University of B.C. Endowment Lands. They were wiped out everywhere else by Pretty Little Puss-Puss.
Amazing how animal lovers love only certain animals.

June 2, 2011 2:44 pm

I should mention, that I do recognize a relationship between habitat area and the possibility of extinction, which is not the same thing as rate of extinction! I know species with very limited ranges do go extinct. I’m from Arizona, one of my areas of study is freshwater ecology, i.e. fish in the desert. A number of species with limited ranges have gone extinct, on the other hand supposedly endangered species, have been managing to do just fine over the last 30 years of imminent destruction! OOPs got to get lunch over…

June 2, 2011 2:46 pm

“Peter Kovachev / You infer far too much into what I wrote….” (Jeremy, June 2, 2011 at 1:21 pm)
Quite possibly. And, since I don’t know you from Adam, I have no reason disbelieve your explanation above.
Please understand that in the battles I usually engage in, the Rothschild name is a common code word revealing and ultimately leading to ugly stuff. Google the name and you’ll see what I mean, and I’m sure that you’ll agree that no matter how innocent or incidental your reference may have been, anyone familiar with conspiracy theories and antisemitism will conclude the same things. And it’s not my thick skin that’s at issue here, but the integrity of our “side,” as it were, which can’t afford to be associated with crank theories.
In any event, I did jump the gun and make aspersions and ad hominem attacks before simply asking what exactly you meant, so, the humble apologies are entirely mine to make.

Al Gored
June 2, 2011 2:47 pm

Mark says:
June 2, 2011 at 9:43 am
Al Gored says:
Gets better. That species, like MOST bird species listed as Endangered or Threatened in Canada, is at the extreme northern margins of its range and is doing just fine in the U.S. This use of political boundaries as well as the invention of alleged subspecies and ‘distinct geographic populations’ swell the listed numbers enormously.
“A large portion of the border between Canada and the US is literally a line someone drew on a map. Thus it follows no geographical features at all. Thus there no possible way any species other than humans could possibly be aware of such a border.”
That was my point. Yet Canada, and presumably every country, and every province and state, comes up with lists based on these ecologically irrelevant political boundaries. Thus, in the case of Canada, every species whose natural range barely extended into Canada is, by default, so small that it gets listed. Even when they are abundant just across the border in the US.
Then it gets worse when they scream that these species are facing “extinction” in Canada when in reality it is extirpation if anything. But “extinction” sounds scarier. Not so long ago David Suzuki, Canada’s loudest liar, was screaming about the “extinction” of the Spotted Owl in Canada – ALWAYS just a tiny pop at the extreme northern tip of their range – and just in case people were not scared enough, he added that “Extinction means forever!!!” Total lie in that case. IF, IF the teeny pop in Canada did disappear, they could be reintroduced from the US pop.
Ironically, one of the biggest problems Spotted Owls now face is competition from Barred Owls, theri eastern counterparts, which recently expanded their range west… then SOUTH… obviously deniers.

Al Gored
June 2, 2011 2:55 pm

Desert Yote – Sounds like you already know how bogus the fairy tale version of the passenger pigeon story is. The super abundance described was a population explosion caused by the decimination of the main predator, Native North Americans, leaving them with all sorts of primes old farmland etc. habitats. Previously those farmers would never tolerate flocks of pigeons eating their crops plus they ate them. All been verified via archaeological evidence, the EARLY historical record, and common sense.
If you are not up on that I can send you some links.
I can probably find what you are looking for later buit curious to know why/what you need or expect to find from that.
BTW, I have had some great back and forth with the Smithsonian on some of their specimens and proved to them why they had no clue about the location of some of them but they never changed anything on their labels. ANYTHING collected by Merriam in particular, and many others of that era, are extremely dubious due to their methods of ‘collection.’ Its actually a joke. If I buy a banana in Chicago, did it come from there?

June 2, 2011 3:03 pm

The animal was called a jack-a-lope.

It’s species like that, which give live birth a bad name.

Matt Skaggs
June 2, 2011 3:35 pm

I appreciate the thoughtful response, even though in retrospect my first comment was a bit trollish. And I really am an admirer of your work. However, your views on extinction might extend farther if you were willing to stand on the shoulders of giants. I highly recommend David Raup’s seminal work “Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck?.” It gives a full description of both the random walk math, and the closely associated concept of “Gambler’s Ruin,” all of which set the mathematical background for the species/area relationship. Some of what you wrote above just reflects confusion about the relationship between animal population dynamics and extinction, exactly what I attempted to get past by using the simpler world of plants. I will concede one point: species/area relationships in mobile animal populations may be so hopelessly complicated that the theory is about as likely to yield useful information as trying to tease the temperature signal out of tree rings. But when you write “Is extinction an issue? Yes, but because of predation, not because of habitat,” that is clearly animal chauvinism. There are approximately 20 species of plants in your home state alone that are considered to have recently become extinct (see CNPS list 1a). The overwhelming majority, if not all, were due to human-caused habitat loss.

June 2, 2011 7:40 pm

Al Gored
June 2, 2011 at 2:55 pm
I am a pretty curious person, like most who post here. As I have stated before, I have a background in freshwater ecology and ichthyology. I also try to stay up to date on carnivore biology, with an emphasis on evolution. I had wanted to be a wildlife biologist, but ended up as an Instrumentation/Test/Software engineer. Anyway, I think I have a good handle on what makes sense and what doesn’t.
Around a decade ago I started to get interested in all of the species that have gone extinct. As I started to think about what I knew about the passenger pigeon, alarm bells went off, so I began an investigation. The explanation you provided is pretty much what I surmised happened, i.e. the population had freakishly exploded. But I also wondered about the validity of the passenger pigeon as a species. Was the whole thing a folk tale like the jack-a-lope? I didn’t know. As an ichthyologist, the first thing I do is turn to the literature, find the holotype and read the paper erecting the taxon. (btw, there are plenty of fish bought in New York mistakes!)
Considering that a whole genus has been erected, not just a species, I was very surprised that I found little in the way of reliable information, and no information about the holotype. I understand that it was very similar to the morning dove. The only material I was able to find a reference to was those skin mounts I mentioned before in the same museum that promotes Abmystomum californium (sorry about the spelling). I eventually moved on to other things mostly because I did not know the resources, and I started a new job. With fish, I know were to go, birds not so much.
So what I am most interested in is information regarding the validity of the passenger pigeon as a species, and not a hybrid, or a variant of the morning dove, or just a folk tale. I am just curious that’s all. I hate not knowing things, and I especially hate being wrong.
BTW, birds are what interest me the least, but I still have been curious enough to learn things such as the sister relationship between pigeons and parrots.

Al Gored
June 2, 2011 10:16 pm

DesertYote says:
June 2, 2011 at 7:40 pm
Very interesting. We have a great deal in common though I am more interested in birds. Have been a birder since I was about 10 years old and that was a long, long time ago. But I had a ‘fish list’ before I had a bird list and used to keep all sorts of native species in aquariums and did other fish-related things later.
Anyhow, the passenger pigeon was classified by Linnaeus, in Europe. Lots of North American species were, from specimens sent over there though many were reclassified by the American scientific establishment. Bit of a turf war going on. So maybe you need to track that original classification down?
And back then it was a ‘splitters’ era, when naturalists were roaming around in search of new ‘species,’ often to name them after themselves or influential friends, and they made a mess of a lot of stuff. Many a false genus, tons of false species, and subspecies.
Now we have a splitting frenzy going on again for other reasons. Save the Tuscon Crow, etc.
But I agree, that genus call is a real stretch. But it was probably if not certainly a distinct species. It was larger and with different colouration than a mourning dove and its behaviour was dramatically different, particularly their colonial nesting. However, given the history that does sort of remind me of the difference between African locusts when they swarm versus when they are at low numbers – though I can’t think of any bird species that does anything like that and it seems highly unlikely.
Maybe somebody someday can get some DNA samples analyzed. Somebody real honest as even that has been corrupted by the Conservation Biology gang and it is almost impossible to verify what they say due to the cost.
In any case, the big fairy tale is that those incredible numbers of passenger pigeons were the ‘natural’ state in the ‘pristine’ pre-European landscape. That is completely false, and ecologically absurd when you look closer… like so much popular mythology that is now also used as a baseline for the Conservation Biology gang. Most, if not all, of the ‘original’ North American wildlife population estimates are total nonsense but if you want to ‘exaggerate the decline’ they are very convenient. Sort of like disappearing the MWP in reverse.
Here’s a book – collection of papers – that you are bound to enjoy:
Kay, C.E. and R.T. Simmons (eds). 2002. Wilderness & Political Ecology. The University of Utah Press.
Has an excellent paper covering the passenger pigeon story and much, much more.
But it is rather hard to find because the gang did their best to bury it when it came out. If I didn’t know one of the authors I doubt if I ever would have heard about it.

Al Gored
June 2, 2011 10:20 pm

Willis Eschenbach says:
June 2, 2011 at 10:15 pm
Sorry Willis, but while that does get some of the historical information correct it presents the fairy tale version. You need to read that book I just noted in my message to Yote.

Al Gored
June 2, 2011 10:29 pm

Willis and Yote – re passenger pigeons, in Kay and Simmons, the paper to read is:
Neumann, T.W. The Role of Prehistoric Peoples in Shaping Ecosystems in the Eastern United States: Implications for Restoration Ecology and Wilderness Management.
The first smallpox epidemics hit in the mid to late 1500s. Another bigger picture book on this is ‘1491’ by Charles Mann. He tells the real passenger pigeon story there too but in far less detail than the paper above.

mikael pihlström
June 3, 2011 2:23 am

Willis Eschenbach says:
June 2, 2011 at 11:30 am
The fact remains: you attributed opinions to the Nature article authors,
which they explicitly oppose in their abstract available for all to check. This
seems to indicate that climate scepticism is indeed a closed belief system. Like
the Inquisition and Soviet marxists you don’t have to render what people actually
say, because you have deeper knowledge of what they think and how they are programmed. Still wonder why the scientific community does not engage in
dialogue with sceptics?
Willis, I applaud your way of fearlessly taking on complex issues in a independent
and critical spirit, but you then run the risk of occasionally finding yourself out of
your depth. As another commentator already suggested your thinking on this issue is somewhat confused and muddled:
1/ The sixth mass extinction is, and must be, tied to a geological timescale.
An abrupt mass extinction thus plays out on a scale of centuries or even
milleniums. The human observer will not readily notice extinctions,
especially since most of them concern e.g. insects or microbes.
2/ The correct management approach is thus to follow population trends,
always acknowledging stochastic fluctuations, singling out persistent
negative trends (for instance farmland birds, wetland butterflies in Europe).
Let us call this the ‘Red List approach’; based on observations and independent
of models, different threat categories are monitored. Based on such monitoring
the width and seriousness of present biodiversity loss should be obvious to
anyone willing to look at the results without prejudice.
3/ Forget your ’27 000 estimate’ for awhile. The Nature article in question does
not mention it, but refers to the authorative ‘Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,
2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis.’
… which states that the natural rate of extinction is 0,1 – 1 species/1000 sp./1000
years. Further it gives the present rate as 100 sp/ 1000 sp/ 1000 years and the estimated future one as 1000 sp/ ….
You will note that this approach avoids the problem: how many species exist
as a global total.
Now, what the article says is that in more limited concrete case studies the
species-area-method might overestimate extinction rate by 100 %. Of course this
is highly relevant and potentially ground breaking, but in the light of above figures,
the sixth mass extinction is still on.
So, clearly, these Nature authors are not even close to underwriting your claims.
This is what they say in the text part of said article:
” there is likely to be concern that these results could jeopardize conservation
efforts and be falsely construed in some quarters to imply that habitat loss is not
a problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no doubt whatsoever
that the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has correctly identified habitat loss as
the primary threat to conserving the Earth’s biodiversity, and the sixth mass
extinction might already be upon us or imminent”
Of course, on this blog somebody will next write that they don’t mean it. It is a
hidden message actually saying: ‘Please rescue us, we are held prisoner by the
evil lords of AGW?

June 3, 2011 3:52 am

I have to chuckle at some of the stories of preservation of species and famous people. Like this:
“Audubon developed his own methods for drawing birds. First, he killed them using fine shot to prevent them from being torn to pieces. He then used fixed wires to prop them up into a natural position, unlike the common method of many ornithologists of first preparing and stuffing the specimens into a rigid pose.”
Willis, re your post at June 2, 2011 at 5:30 am replying to mine, I was not disagreeing with you. I was trying to point to inexactidues that might perturb empirical equations. Sure, the IUCNRedBook definition of extinct does not mention 50 years. It notes:
“A taxon is Extinct when there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died. A taxon is presumed Extinct when exhaustive surveys in known and/or expected habitat, at appropriate times (diurnal, seasonal, annual), throughout its historic range have failed to record an individual. Surveys should be over a time frame appropriate to the taxon’s life cycle and life form.” My point was more that there is a time lag of significant extent neded to invoke the definition and this lag affects the graph you show.
And I was not accusing you of saying that Aussies were bad bastards. Plenty of others do that. The point was more that some countries get caned after hearings in the Court of Public Opinion because of accidents of asquisition of territories, despite lack of evidence of blame.
I get sick of hearing, in similar vein, that Australians are the highest global emitters of GHG per head of population. The wrong definition is used for allocating guilt.

June 3, 2011 3:56 am

Willis, BTW, for years I have asked the same question “Where are the inscribed headstones?” when greenies make claims that n*hundreds of thousands have died from the aftermath of Chernoble.

June 3, 2011 4:26 am

One slight hole in your reasoning/logic which needs to be plugged: although it seems unlikely, if a sufficiently low proportion of total species are observed, then the numbers of observed extinctions would be low compared to total extinctions. Is there any evidence that observed species only represent a tiny, tiny percentage of the species in question?
Another thing, which is probably my mistake, is that I was under the impression that the massive lost-species claims referred mainly to insects. Is that just spin I shouldn’t have believed?

Wondering Aloud
June 3, 2011 6:05 am

I disagree with you on failed evolution examples. They are all around you. all of these species with rediculously limited habitat requirements are an obvious example. Natural selection would eliminate nearly all of them in geologically short order.

Matt Skaggs
June 3, 2011 7:40 am

“So if a plant is wiped out by agriculture, is that extinction from habitat loss or death by plow? The problem doesn’t seem to be the lack of suitable habitat for the Bakersfield smallscale. It is that we killed them all.”
From wikipedia: “The plants are endemic to the alkali soils of the local occasionally flooded salt pan. Much of the land in the San Joaquin Valley was claimed and altered for agriculture and the water table dropped, making conditions too dry for reproduction of many species, including this Atriplex.”
This looks like an exact fit to my understanding of the term “habitat loss.” If the habitat was still there, the plants would come back from seed. I suspect that the centimation of the salt pans in the upper San Joaquin, and the extinctions that caused, would fit well into Wilson’s predictive model derived from species/area relationships.

June 3, 2011 8:13 am

Al Gored
June 2, 2011 at 10:16 pm
Thanks 🙂
I’ll see if I can scare up a copy.

June 3, 2011 8:23 am

mikael pihlström
June 3, 2011 at 2:23 am
Give it up already, you are out of your league and starting to make an ass out of yourself.

June 3, 2011 10:25 am

Willis, you said:
“This is because all of the amazing panoply of species we see out there are the winners of one of the fiercest competitions imaginable—the unending fight to survive. All of them are good at recovering from the hard knocks, or they wouldn’t be here. All of them are adept at making it through the lean times, or they wouldn’t be here. There’s not an amateur or a beginner in the bunch, they’ve been honing their skills against every imaginable disaster since forever.”
Once again, your enthusiasm overreaches your logic. You have just described a static state where all the species that are with us now are sitting at the peak of evolution, like pandas, for example.
I think that Geoff Sherrington’s point about artificial boundaries deserves better attention than waving it away along the lines that it was not the focus of your article. In Australia, we are constantly being told that some bird or other is ‘endangered to the point of extinction’ because it hasn’t been seen in a defined area for a while. The fact that it turns up elsewhere is not regarded as worth reporting.
The point about endless sub-speciation is also relevant, even if it wasn’t the focus of your article. This week, we have been told that not only do we have a new kind of dolphin (snub-nosed), but that although it is apparently identical to others elsewhere, it is our own, rare, and gravely endangered because there are not many of them around here.
I won’t even start about orchids (an interest of mine) and the definitions of species and extinctions, none of which would stand up to even the most basic trade descriptions laws.
Making the argument for the bigger picture doesn’t mean that you have to trash the discussion of specifics along the way.

June 3, 2011 10:42 am

mikael pihlström says:
“This seems to indicate that climate scepticism is indeed a closed belief system… Still wonder why the scientific community does not engage in dialogue with sceptics?”
mikael, you should give some thought to what Willis pointed out. It is the purveyors of the “carbon” scare who run ‘n’ hide from debate, not scientific skeptics.
And you make an error by saying “climate skeptics.” Skepticism of all claims is required by the scientific method – which says nothing about the climate. Rather, skepticism and open, transparent dialog and examination of scientific work is essential to replicate that work. And of course the only honest kind of scientist is a skeptic. Unfortunately, the alarmists don’t qualify.
You will notice that some scientists refuse to follow the scientific method. They hide out from debate, they connive privately to game the journal peer review system, and they fight tooth and nail against FOI forced disclosure of their data, methods and code. The people you are apologizing for aren’t worth it.

Mikael Pihlström
June 3, 2011 11:31 am

Willis Eschenbach says:
June 3, 2011 at 10:04 am
The rest of us live in the real world, where when someone says ‘the threat is a thousand times smaller than we thought’ it kinda means, you know, ‘worry less’
At this point I am just curious whether you misunderstand or has the ‘Great
Game’ come to the stage where Machiavellian methods are pervasive
– nowhere does Hubbell (actually second author, but he is the experienced
one) say that the exaggeration is several magnitudes, let alone 1000 times.
He says (check your own link): “previous estimates should be divided roughly
by 2.5”
– if the current MEA-estimate is 100 sp extinct per 1000 sp in a millenium,
that is at least hundred times the prehistoric average, division by 2.5 would
still yield a tremendous rate of loss, which is not so surprising if you look at
recent global changes in land use.
– to repeat, I quote in verbatim: “There is no doubt whatsoever that the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) has correctly identified habitat loss as the primary threat to conserving the Earth’s biodiversity, and the sixth mass extinction might already be upon us or imminent.
You are of course entitled to your own take on the sixth mass extinction, but
you cannot claim that this Nature article is in agreement with your views.
It is not. I don’t think you have followed S.Hubbell’s production even to the extent
I have – the idea that he would glance to the left and right for approval is
ridiculous, given his status, age and research resources.
Actually I am not so worried about the 6th …

Al Gored
June 3, 2011 12:41 pm

Willis Eschenbach says:
June 3, 2011 at 9:34 am
“Sorry, Al, but that presents a number of personal accounts of the passenger pigeon. So you’ll have to be more specific — which of the historical information is correct and which is not? Are you saying that Audubon’s description is a fairy tale, or whose?”
The fairy tale is the whole context of the story. What those accounts describe was not ‘natural.’ It was the result of the complete disruption of what was once a heavily populated – by mostly farmers as well as hunter-gatherers by smallpox BEFORE any European arrived there to record it, compounded by more epidemics after. First smallpox pandemics in Florida and Mexico (early 1500s), spread via intertribal trade and contacts.
So when looking at these historical accounts you first need to look at the dates, as well as the locations (these mega flocks were seen progressively further west, which is also not clearly explained here).
Thus the statement that “the Indians [n]ever seriously affected the increase of the Pigeons” was true only after Indian populations were deciminated and pigeon pops had already exploded. False in 1491, as confirmed by the archaeological record and ecological common sense. What Kalm states only describes, at most, a very late phenomenon with little or no bearing on the ‘natural’ state. Moreover, any statement about “the Indians of Canada” is as much an overgeneralization as “the food of Canada.” Which particular nation or even subgroup was he describing, when, and where?
It goes on: “The aborigines never could have reduced appreciably the number of the species. Wherever the great roost were established, Indians always gathered in great numbers. This, according to their traditions, had been the custom among them from time immemorial. They always had slaughtered these birds, young and old, in great quantities, but there was no market among the Indians,and the only way they could preserve the meat for future use was by drying or smoking the breasts.They cured large numbers in this way. Also, they were accustomed to kill great quantities of the squabs in order to take out the fat, which was used as butter is used by the whites. Lawson writes (1709): “You may find several Indian towns of not above seventeen houses that have more than 100 gallons pigeons oil or fat.”
Again, note the date. By then very low Indian pops and exploding pigeon pops. Note the contradictions, including versus the “Indians of Canada” story. Moreover, these second hand recollections of “time immemorial” are not supported by any other evidence. Most significantly, this suggests that even though they “cured large numbers in this way” their killing was limited because “there was no market among the Indians.” That is completely false. Intertribal trading was the norm and in the eastern US (like the SW and Mandans and others on the Missouri), much of that trade was between hunter-gatherers, who were likely the main pigeon hunters, and corn (etc.) farmers. This trading symbiosis elevated pops of both. Some vast trade networks. Familiar with the mound builders and other elaborate maize-based civilizations in the eastern US?
Key point: “The Plymouth colony was threatened with famine in 1643, when great flocks of Pigeons swept down upon the ripened corn and beat down and ate “a very great quantity of all sorts of English grain”. But Winthrop says that in 1648 they came again after the harvest was gathered, and proved a great blessing…”
So in 1491, how or why would the Indian farmers cope with this kind of competition. They couldn’t and wouldn’t, which explains why pigeon remains are so RARE in the archaeological record. Basic competion.
Next part of the fairy tale: “This was due in part to the destruction of the forests, particularly the beechwoods which once covered vast tracts, and which furnished the birds with a chief supply of food. Later, the primeval pine and hemlock forests of the northern States largely were cut away. This deprived the birds of another source of food–the seed of these trees… while the reduction of the forest area in the East was a large factor in the diminution of the Pigeons, we cannot attribute their extermination to the destruction of the forest. Forest fires undoubtedly had something to do with reducing the number of these birds, for many were destroyed by these fires, and in some cases large areas of forest were ruined absolutely by fire, thus for many years depriving the birds of a portion of their food supply. Nevertheless, the fires were local and restricted, and had comparatively little effect on the vast numbers of the species.”
In 1491 those forests were already largely cleared for farming and/or burned regularly by Indians. This whole premise of this ‘pristine forest’ is false. (And conifers were not a significant food source for these birds as suggested.) The same foods sought by the pigeons later were eaten by the Indians, and they managed their lands – mostly with regular burning – to produce and maintain those food trees (same for the oaks in CA which you are probably more familiar with – until smallpox and the Spanish arrived to TOTALLY disrupt that whole ecosystem).
So, to oversimplify, that ‘primeval’ forest was already heavily populated, burned, cleared, with crops, in 1491, with the people doing that also harvesting most of the ‘pigeon food’ and eating any available pigeons; then smallpox eliminated most of those people – the super keystone species of that ecosystem – leaving all those regrowing habitats and old farmlands and foods for the pigeons.
The whole fairy tale versions depends on the false belief that Indians were ‘rare and primitive’ and is based on observations after Euro influences destroyed their original ‘civilization.’
Pardon me if this is a little disjointed and rambling with possible typos. In a hurry. Can answer any fine points here later. But you really ought to read that paper and/or book noted earlier, which put the whole story into context. It is basic ecology. All those people could not and did not tolerate that kind of ‘pest’ competition, particularly when it was edible and so easy to kill. And those people had been there for thousands of years before 1492. It was NOT a primeval ‘wilderness.’ It was a human dominated landscape, modified for their needs.

Al Gored
June 3, 2011 12:46 pm

Aargh! Posted it and already see a dang glitch:
Where I said “It was the result of the complete disruption of what was once a heavily populated – by mostly farmers as well as hunter-gatherers by smallpox BEFORE any European arrived there to record it…”
Should read: “It was the result of the complete disruption of what was once a heavily populated – by mostly farmers as well as hunter-gatherers- WHO WERE DECIMATED by smallpox BEFORE any European arrived there to record it…”
Best not to write so fast… hope there aren’t too many more glitches like that. Will check back later for another look.

June 3, 2011 1:13 pm

The self-correction is way, way too slow. The claim of extraordinary extinctions was made by E. O. Wilson in 1992. It’s 20 years later, and the process of throwing out the garbage is just begun.
All sounds a little familiar doesn’t it?.
It isn’t just a problem for “science”. Once such a claim has been processed by the chattering classes (10:10 et al ) it quickly becomes a fact or “corporate disinformation” depending on your POV. Even if you could quickly provide absolutely incontrovertible scientific evidence to the contrary, it doesn’t matter. Endless repetition by the environmental industry has already secured its [the factoid] place in the “good book” – forever.
The people targeted by this kind of “knowledge” don’t want “science” they want bullet points. The Earth receives X W/M^2 therefore we can run a steel plant directly from the Sun if only we had the political will and could get rid of those corporate interests opposing reality. Laugh all you like – this was a real conversation with a young green (a sprout?) not too long ago.
Willis, while I love reading your posts and they always provide much “food for thought”, I think you are missing an essential point. Like many of us you are left fighting yesterdays enviro propaganda. The “sustainers”, like bank robbers
head down high street throwing cash out the back of the getaway car to frustrate their capture. They are always one step ahead because they don’t care about the “truth” of a study – it’s all about spin. Cold is the new warm, – do you really have the time to prove that it isn’t?
The idea of the “neutral scientist” is where the problem arises. No such animal – hmm… let’s see now… spent my working life studying Amazon Army Ants. Are you really suggesting that, having spent my working life studying Ants (or string theory or whatever) I’m still some kind of dispassionate observer of the world. I’m an advocate. I hate humans who kill Amazon Ants and I write papers (at taxpayer expense) defending the wonderful world of Ants. I come up with some numbers (from my model) that “prove” that there were more Ants in 1950 than there are currently and that becomes an “envirofact”. I get more funding to study Ants and so on. You now have to spend X amount of time and effort to “scientifically” prove that the guy is full of shit. lets be clear – he’s spent most of his adult life counting Ants – it’s an institution of the cuckoo nest variety.
Watching a recent British Envirodoc, I laughed my socks off. The problem was that some (UK) sea birds… Gannets.. had grown their population by (apparently) eating all the “EU discard”. The EU is thinking of introducing new law to prevent “discard”.
The gannet scientists are horrified that these new laws will destroy the new Gannet populations – go figure! There were even people in the EnviroDoc fighting to preserve ship wrecks! Let’s get this straight – wrecks (WWI/II) are now apparently a natural world in need of protection from horrible human beings. Plot – lost.

Mikael Pihlström
June 3, 2011 1:22 pm

Willis Eschenbach says:
June 3, 2011 at 10:20 am
If a plant disappears under the plow, if we plow every last one of them under, is that extinction by habitat loss or death by plow?

I am not sure what your quandary is? Are you asking whether destroying
the habitat or killing the species is worse?
Both your examples concern local patches of habitat A or B. No patch is
an island until uniform habitat loss over the landscape makes it an
island. The landscape is the important context and you should not
abstract away the processes of migration, dissemination and colonisation.
Therefore if the habitat is very threatened at landscape level (fragmented)
it does not matter whether you kill the current individuals or destroy the habitat
since processes M-D-C will not be available to relaunch the species.
In a less fragmented landscape killing the current individuals is less harmful
since colonisation will follow with time, unless the killing (plough) also destroys
the habitat in the sense that colonisation fails totally, despite
dissemination/migration, or fails over time (e.g. initial establishment, but gradual decline due to competition).
But in the arable land case, formerly, e.g natural grassland, the seed bank will
of course be decisive. If there is a seed bank, but ploughing has removed the conditions for regrowth (either changing abiotic factors such as soil texture or
through biotic competition from new species) there is factual habitat loss – so the answer to your question in most cases is that is more appropriate to use the term habitat loss.
The habitat is the home or local environment of the species. It can be described
by e.g. physiognomic traits (e.g. forest ) or from a resource viewpoint (calcareous soil
or specific host plant for a butterfly species). If the species of interest are resp.
brown bear, orchid and butterfly you can destroy the resp. habitats through
land use, but normally killing the species locally would happen only in the case of
the brown bear, maybe also the orchid if it a sought after collection item.
In the case of the brown bear killing it would obviously not be filed as habitat loss
but as overhunting or poaching. So yes, there is this case. An interesting question
is if the brown bear is very local and behaviorally confined to a rare larger patch of forest in a rather populated open landscape – if in the surrounding landscape all
elk & moose are hunted to nearly extinct, is there habitat loss for the bear
although the forest looks intact? Yes I would say so – in metapopulation models
the decisive factor is not so much habitat distribution, but quality habitat

Al Gored
June 3, 2011 3:06 pm

Mikael Pihlström says:
June 3, 2011 at 1:22 pm
“An interesting question
is if the brown bear is very local and behaviorally confined to a rare larger patch of forest in a rather populated open landscape – if in the surrounding landscape all
elk & moose are hunted to nearly extinct, is there habitat loss for the bear
although the forest looks intact? Yes I would say so – in metapopulation models
the decisive factor is not so much habitat distribution, but quality habitat
Habitat quality includes food availability so to the extent these bears were preying on elk and moose (mostly calves is typical) their disappearance would reduce their habitat quality and possibly the carrying capacity of that habitat depending on their alternative foods. Some brown (grizzly) bear pops are almost entirely vegetarian. Being omnivorous has great advantages. Their low reproductive rates is their Achilles heel. Thus predation not habitat loss per se – because they can adapt to a huge range of habitats as revealed by their vast and diverse range – is what does their populations in. That said, total habitat loss, e.g., conversion to farmlands or cities is another story.
I see in Sweden a remarkable recovery in brown bears with reduced hunting. Same story everywhere in their current North American range.

Al Gored
June 3, 2011 4:33 pm

Willis Eschenbach says:
June 3, 2011 at 4:08 pm
Think your words on the cause of their extinction are right on.
I cannot recommend that Kay and Simmons book enough, or that particular paper that goes into this pigeon story. Tons of stuff in there which I am sure you would find very interesting.
I’m old and book oriented. You can also get the short story by googling ‘Aboriginal Overkill’ or many other things by ‘Charles E. Kay.’ He’s a hero who has suffered incredible slings and arrows from the gang for his pioneering work.
Your description of ‘Indians’ as ‘Asian’ immigrants is inconvenient, of course, because it reveals how stupid popular mythology about ‘pristine’ North American really is. According to those fairy tales, NA people lived in harmony with nature and all that – supposedly completely different than those evil Eurasians, particularly the super-evil Euros who ruined the perfect Garden of Eden. Humans as a species, like any other species, do some very predictable things to survive no matter where they are.

June 3, 2011 7:07 pm

Willis Eschenbach
June 3, 2011 at 3:53 pm
“But you can bet that the Red Book will list “loss of habitat” prominently among the reasons that it is threatened.”
According to Red Book, a species can be listed as threatened (and endangered) because its NATURAL distribution is below a threshold, regardless of any other criteria. In 1996, a whole boat load (arc load) of species were added based on restricted ranges. The Delta Smelt is one of them! The term “threatened” is really a meaningless weasel word in the common vernacular, though the “Red Book” is pretty rigorous in defining it, it still is overloaded with the idea that something is wrong that needs to be corrected.
I wish more people were familiar with what is actually in the “Red Book” so that they are not fooled by the greenies misrepresentations. Terms have pretty specific and useful meanings, after all some real scientist have been involved and their work has not been totally obscured by all the moonbats that are also involved.

Al Gored
June 3, 2011 9:01 pm

DesertYote says:
June 3, 2011 at 7:07 pm
On the same tangent as your passenger pigeon question, as a fish guy, do you think that Delta Smelt is a real species? Always wondered but never looked. Seems some fish species are so plastic and evolve so rapidly to adapt to certain habitats that it is rather hard to say sometimes… and I know of some very dubious calls for apparently convenient purposes.

June 4, 2011 12:45 pm

Al Gored
June 3, 2011 at 9:01 pm
The Delta Smelt, Hypomesus transpacificus, is indead a valid species. It is closely related to Hypomesus nipponensis (the Japanese Smelt) once thought to be a subspecies of H. transpacificus, Hypomesus japanicus, and Hypomesus pretiosus (the Serf Smelt). I think that one time at least some of these these were are considered a single species, but the genus was revised in the early 60s by McAllister. H. transpacifcus and H. nipponensis are both brackish estuary specialists, the other two are mostly marine coastal. The Delta Smelt is “trapped” in the bay, unable to transit the golden gate.
As for endangerment:
The main constraint on population is predation from species such as the introduces (!) Striped Bass (Morone saxitilis). It has a mean population doubling time of 15 months. It is tolerant of a wide range of water chemistry and temperatures. It real population fluctuates greatly, as do all forage species. Its population is also very hard to determine. Anyone who claims the population is in decline is a liar. The only reason it is Red Book listed (B1+2cd) is because of its restriction to the San Fransisco Bay and bogus computer modeling!
This is what I remember off the top of my head. I will see if I can find the article/rant that I wrote a few years ago because of all the misinformation that was being spread. I wanted something handy that I could post.
BTW, many ichthyologists working with taxonomy, are stating to abandon sub species designations except in cases where sub-species status is pretty obvious. Its silly that every tributary would have its own sub-species. Type designations make a lot more sense.

June 4, 2011 4:01 pm

Great work Willis. Amazing what is revealed by asking some basic questions.
You say first recorded cases of extinction. But I understand that in many areas the only records prior to European types showing up were memories repeated to younger generations, which I consider imprecise. I also ask if those people cared enough about what was gone to pass the knowledge on – I suggest they had to focus on what was available today, in their meagre existence most had.
There are fossils of course, my impression is they often are just tantalizing glimpses of the past.
As for Pimm’s 5% “logic”, even that would be variable. Land clearing for farming usually leaves very hilly or wet terrain alone, I suggest most species live there, or in the “interface” between forest and meadow, because it provides better shelter and food than the dense forest on flat land. (Aboriginals near Port Angeles WA used fire to remove trees to create clearings so as to increase the amount of interface (and meadow plants like camus).)
A key factor will be how much food is left. Cougars may do well because deer will thrive. Small birds of prey will like the rodents that thrive in grain fields where harvesting methods leave kernels on the ground.
And note that Pimm’s thesis must inherently depend on one of:
– a species only living in a particular area, thus only one remaining “island” of habitat
– a predator favouring the population in islands or able to operate more efficiently in a small area
Otherwise how small must a population be to not be sustainable? One factor is disease, but a population spread across small islands would be less susceptible. Another is in-breeding, my impression is that opinions vary as to how bad a factor that is. Have any serious wildlife biologists examined Pimm’s thesis?
And so what if some species go extinct? I don’t have sympathy for grey whales as a species, because they are too selective in where they eat (only in summer in the Bering area near AK). (But hark! what do I read about some feeding on the BC coast, and some junking the commute notion and staying on the OR coast? Must be a different “species”. 😉
As for adaptability, I’ve recently read of cases of piebald eagles starting to eat different small animals, and taking food from seagulls at a garbage dump miles away from where they live (the latter when their traditional food source was scarce one season).
Just my “educated guessing”.

June 4, 2011 4:04 pm

But BTW, the history of debate over a supposedly unique marmot, on Vancouver Island in BC Canada, is instructive. Numbers were very small, and alarmists spouted various theories – especially that clear-cutting of forested valleys either inhibited migration thus increased in-breeding, or that the lack of ground cover made it easier for predators to capture the marmots. But common sense examination showed that open condition only exists for a couple of years on the wet coast, and tagging/tracking shows the little critters are mobile (one young male moved 30 km, across rivers, mountains, etc.). It is now recognized that the main cause of mortality is predators (see above re eagles), especially as marmots like to come out of their burrow and sun themselves (which is best done on a log or rock – exposed).
Also beware of the definition of a species. On the Pacific coast of North America some environmentalists claim that each river has a different species of salmon (aside from the normal distinctions like Coho versus Sockeye, which are not unique to a river) and that smelts are different south of the Canada-US border (as if smelts know where that big artificial line on the map is). It gets amusing – what happens if some of those fish get confused and go up the wrong river to spawn, which wildlife experts say happens, or humans introduce them to a creek or river as is now a popular thing to do? Gosh, humans are creating species? (Like the domestic dog or cat? Like the potato we know (created by Peruvian natives through selective breeding)? 😉
Oh, and there’s the matter of forests growing back, apparently a big trend in the tropics due to the challenges of farming and rapid growth of vegetation. That’s been covered on CA/WUWT, IIRC, but alarmists claim species distribution is somehow different in regrowth – never mind the evidence that the Amazon once had much clearing by natives who built up islands for crops and raised fish in the channels.
A brother once said “common sense isn’t”.
(He later proved that by becoming a true believer of an emotional con job whose purpose was to control someone else’s life, attacking her defender with a smear campaign.)
The big question in both cases is “why are people so gullible?”

June 5, 2011 2:33 pm

Another wrinkle in “species” definition is that brown bears are only a colour variation of the “black bear”, which also occurs in “blue” (silvery), “red” (cinamon), “white” (the “Kermode” bear common in some areas of the B.C. coast, fewer elsewhere), and of course basic black. Biologists on the BC coast say some minor factor makes the visible difference.
(As well I suggest looking at habitat as a possible factor – distribution of brown versus black would be of interest as both are plentiful.) Food sources might be another (but the orangy tinge to the Kermode bear is only temporary, due to something salmon ingest, being a seasonal food for the bears).
And beware shade may vary with season, as coarser outer hair is grown or shed.
Grizzly bears are quite different from black bears, as are polar bears.

June 5, 2011 2:36 pm

Wayne Richards:
Reality is that garter snakes are alive in simple lawns & gardens in the Victoria BC area.
There may be fewer than there used to be, but not the scarcity you claim. Do keep in mind they are not easy to spot, I’d expect that with more flower gardens and taller grass fewer would be noticed.
Predators certainly can be a problem, many big birds around for example.
The whole species thing seems dependent on how much people actually look, logically. When the small “sharp-tailed snake” got publicity in the southern VI/Gulf Islands area people reported more (I speculate they simply weren’t noticed or differentiated from worms, as they tend to stay hidden). And recently in Metchosin (west of Victoria) people found an amazing number of small critters and plants during a deliberate looking survey (like a bird-watching exercise).

Al Gored
June 5, 2011 10:30 pm

DesertYote says:
June 4, 2011 at 12:45 pm
Thanks for that info. It does fit with the plasticity of some fish species, given the time involved in that story. And still does raise questions about what a ‘species’ means.
One that caught my eye was an alleged ‘species’ of dace and a similar isolation in a unique habitat, on an even shorter timespan, and classified back in the split-and-name-after-me- or-my-boss era. Long supposedly extinct. I assume that if you let the root dace stock recolonize that very local area they will morph back to something similar in (relative) no time to adapt to that environment. If that localized habitat hadn’t changed since then it could end up identical. That is happening now so we shall find out. Evolution never sleeps.

Matt Skaggs
June 6, 2011 8:27 am

Willis wrote:
“If a particular species is only found in one location in the entire globe, obviously they didn’t get the message of “go forth and multiply”.
That is true of neo-endemics, completely false for paleo-endemics. The La Brea tar pit fauna lived in mixed cypress forest. Cypresses also covered vast areas of the nascent Sierra. Some of those cypress species are likely now extinct (palynologists and paleontologists are very cautious about attributing fossils to specific species for most groups of plants, so we cannot know for sure), others cling to a precarious existence in tiny islands of extant habitat. Torrey Pine, Monterey Pine, Sequoia, and Carpinteria are all members of the California charismatic megaflora that have been centimated by natural (or in a few cases possibly early human-induced) habitat loss. Well, that’s what a century of careful field work has shown, anyway. I would recommend the works of Raven and Axelrod on paleo-endemism in California, but beware…for some individuals, authoritative empirical treatises can have a tendency to dampen the free flow of ideas.

June 6, 2011 4:23 pm

And another example of what people find when they actually are able to track the more mobile critters:
An Orca (aka “killer whale”) has been tracked from Canada’s Arctic to near the Azores, where the radio tag stopped working.
Earlier a grey whale was tracked from the area of Russia/Japan around the top of the Pacific to near Baja California, where the radio tag stopped reporting.
In both cases the whale kept moving, once it started.
(The Orca stayed in the Arctic until it got cold. A real “snowbird”? 😉 Historical records say orcas were seen in quantity south of the Azores in the winter. Hey, they aren’t dumb – the Artic is cold in winter. 🙂
The article reports that orcas are being seen more frequently in the Arctic, especially in Hudson’s Bay, perhaps due to less ice and more prey. (The ones in the eastern Arctic appear to be eating sea mammals such as bowhead whales, on the west coast of NA some eat sea mammals like seals while others prefer salmon.)

Al Gored
June 8, 2011 11:59 am

Al Gored says:
June 2, 2011 at 10:16 pm
Maybe somebody someday can get some DNA samples analyzed. Somebody real honest as even that has been corrupted by the Conservation Biology gang and it is almost impossible to verify what they say due to the cost.
Just to follow up on this…
“Animal rights groups are pressing a case in federal court maintaining that wild horses roamed the West about 1.5 million years ago and didn’t disappear until as recently as 7,600 years ago. More important, they say, a growing stockpile of DNA evidence shows conclusively that today’s horses are genetically linked to those ancient ancestors.”
LOL. No doubt they are “genetically linked” but that is, of course, meaningless in this context. The Spanish who brought the horse back were ‘genetically linked’ to Native North Americans too. Chimps are genetically linked to both. Just a hint of what lies can be told with ‘DNA evidence’ and it gets much worse than this. presumably this ‘eveidence’ did not need to be manufactured.

Greg Miles
July 1, 2011 1:55 am

I have left it a bit late. Everyone who is not extinct seems to have had a go at this. I admit to have not read all the posts so i apologise if someone has already made this following observation:
I really enjoyed reading what you say and I don’t argue with the main thrust of what you say about the fabrication of animal extinctions or the veracity of the research.
But I do take issue with the context.
What you have done is apply academic narrowness to the debate. This is an important problem with science in my view. This problem emerges when people focus down onto a small aspect of something and under such forensic examination, the big picture gets lost. And yet it is the Big Picture that counts in the end. In this case the end is about biodiversity conservation.
So, to respond at the simplest level (and my comment come from the Australian perspective as I know Australia best) I would argue that the absolute number of extinctions that have happened in the past 200 years, or ten years, is not all that important. EG, in the Big Picture, it is of very little significance if the Cape York Pin-striped Land Snail goes extinct.
What is important is ‘trending’. IE how is the extinction thing trending. Up, down or flat? And how are the drivers of extinction trending?
I would argue that what IS important is the number of species that are at risk of extinction. I believe that right around the world we are just seeing the tip of an emerging iceberg in terms of extinctions.
Firstly I would argue that (in terms of conservation of species) that by the time an animal becomes rare (or ‘near threatened’ in jargon) it is already nearly too late. In other words Willis, you are putting emphasis on absolute extinctions, when in fact you should be worrying about the status of a species long before it becomes extinct or even rare (Assuming that Humans are the cause of this rareness). This is because the importance of a species on our planet is not whether or not it is extinct, but whether or not it can fulfill its evolutionary role in the natural environment. What the Cane Toad has done in north Australia is a great example of this. Using your measure, the exotic pest the CaneT toad is not a problem as it has not caused one extinction (as far as we know). But this fails to recognise that the Cane Toad has single handedly removed Quolls, Goannas, Phascogales, Death Adders, King Brown Snakes and Olive Pythons etc., etc. from the natural ecological processes. As far as the landscape is concerned, it does not matter a rats bum if these species are technically ‘extinct’. This is because they are now PRACTICALLY extinct, in terms of their role in the landscape. This is called Ecological Extinction.
Then, in north Australia, when you add the exotic African Grasses and Mimosa pigra and Salvinia molesta to the equasion – it is easy to see that in 50 years there will be stacks of other species reduced to “ecological extinction”. But maybe you see this as OK? In the whole of arid Australia from Port Augusta in the south to Ningaloo in the west and Longreach in the east, we see the exotic Buffell Grass doing the same as African Grasses in the north. But this is OK because Buffell Grass may not cause any absolute extinctions?!!!
In fact, most of our conservation efforts need to be focussed on Near Threatened species; not those that are close to extinction. For these, it is already too late. Those that are close to extinction should be the subject of captive breeding programs, but I would call these “Counter Extinction” strategies, not “Conservation” strategies.
Next we have the problem of all species not being equal. So if people are arguing that ‘reports of our extinctions have been exaggerated’, one need to look at what species are involved – to put this into a relevant context. EG would you give equal weight to the extinction of the Cape York Pin-striped Land Snail and the Sumatran Rhinoceros? It may be very anthropocentric of me, but I would rather see the Rhino saved than the snail. Or Orangutans vs the Centralian Rock Rat? So I think that most people would agree with me that what species go extinct is more important than how many. As another example – the Top End of the Northern Territory of Australia appears to have had a shocking extinction rate amongst the land snails. Probably due to human induced changes in fire regimes. But you don’t read much about that. But you do hear about what Cane Toads have done to quolls.
Ah – but you might argue that we are just putting a human biased value on what is important or not – quolls are prettier than land snails.
OK, then lets look at it from a purely ecological point of view: Are all species equal in the eyes of nature (not humans)? Ask your self – is one of these more important than another if they go extinct: – the Pin-striped Land Snail or Antarctic krill?!!!!!!
I could go on about things such as:
How do you determine if something is extinct or not? This is not easy and can take decades.
Are we including microbiological species in the ledger, or only animals we can see?
Are we – as custodians of the earth – going to be happy in the knowledge that all we have to worry about are the numbers of absolute extinctions and not about all those thousands of spp. which are being reduced to Ecological Extinction?
What about the issue of regional extinctions? – eg the Eastern Quoll is extinct in New South Wales but still persists in the state of Victoria. Should NSW be sanguine about that?
SO – I love your argument and thank you for your work and effort – but in terms of nature conservation the whole focus on the word “extinction” is too narrow to be important, I reckon.
By by

Brian H
July 3, 2011 4:56 am

Wow. Well and thoroughly deconstructed, Willis.
There’s another point: the examples from Australia also need to be put “in context”. If ever there was a territory designed for massive species overturn if a “bridge” allowing ingress of foreign species was ever opened, Australia is it. Born to be an extinction victim, it was. And preventing it would have required a level of self-control and foresight never yet observed, unfortunately.
Think of Australia and NZ as experiments in species isolation. The open the door to niche competition with the world. Predict the result. Now undo the consequences.

Brian H
July 3, 2011 4:56 am

typo: “then open the door”

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