Real Science: Why Claire & Brian Care About Endangered Species

photo: Chuck Homler

Endangered species, if not protected, could eventually become extinct—and extinction has a myriad of implications for our food, water, environment and even health.

“Why Endangered Species Matter” by Renee Cho in Columbia University Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog

All living things are part of a biosphere. Earth’s biosphere contains numerous ecosystems. Each ecosystem is complex and delicately balanced, until it is disrupted by human activity or natural disaster that creates imbalances. The removal of one species can create a chain reaction (a domino effect), with unimaginable consequences.

According to Cho’s article, three of the main modern causes of extinction are invasive species, climate change, and nitrogen pollution.

Environmentalists often cite the effects of extinction on an ecosystem or other wildlife species. But something we hear less about are the effects of species extinction on human health.

More than a quarter of prescription medications contain chemicals that were discovered through plants or animals. Penicillin was derived from a fungus. Scientists are studying the venom of some tarantulas to see if one of its compounds could help cure diseases such as Parkinson’s. One molecule from a rare marine bacterium could be the basis of a new way to treat to melanoma. The drug Taxol is part of standard treatment for ovarian cancer. Taxol is extracted from the bark of the Pacific Yew, a tree once considered a weed and commonly cut and discarded. A scientist with the National Cancer Institute described the bark extract as “too fiendishly complex” a chemical structure for researchers to have invented on their own. Read more in this article by US Fish & Wildlife Service.

In fact, 25% of western medicines are derived from the rainforest!

According to a study for the U.N., the continued loss of species could cost the world 18 percent of global economic output by 2050.

Cho writes, “Already, a number of industries have been economically impacted by species loss. The collapse of bee populations has hurt many in the $50 billion-a-year global honey industry. Atlantic cod in the waters off of Newfoundland formed the basis of the local economy since the 15th century — until overfishing the cod destroyed the livelihoods of local fishermen.”

Like Brian & Claire, the main characters in For the Birds, you can do your part to protect endangered species of wildlife (flora, fauna & fungi). Cho offers numerous suggestions, including buying only organic food, composting food waste, setting up a beehive, and reducing your use of plastic. Read her full list of suggestions here.

Brian’s heart raced as he envisioned himself working in Delaware’s wild areas, observing, cataloging, protecting over 800 species of wild plants, animals, fish, insects, and rare flora and fauna. He scanned the photos of some of Delaware’s wild spaces lining one wall of Arthur’s cubicle… He could not wait to get into the field. 

from Chapter 2 of For the Birds

The Real Science referenced in this blog post was pulled from Renee Cho’s article (cited above) and the US Fish & Wildlife Service article (also cited above.)