A Conversation at the Museum of Natural History

The Chances of the World Changing filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar goes to the American Museum of Natural History for an informative conversation with George Amato, director of conservation genetics, about turtle conservation and the relationship between evolution and extinction.


Eric Daniel Metzgar: The film is about a private conservationist, and I’m not sure if people realize the different ways turtle conservation is approached. A lot of the questions I’ve gotten at Q&As have to do with, “Is this the only way turtles are being conserved?” I don’t think people realize that there is institutional conservation happening, as well as conservation work in zoos, and also work being done here at the Museum of Natural History. Can you talk a little more about that?

The work of private conservationists like Richard Ogust can play a very significant role.The work of private conservationists like Richard Ogust can play a very significant role.

George Amato: The whole process of doing conservation is very complicated and requires the involvement of lots of different groups. One of the interesting things that you really highlight in this film is that private individuals can actually play a very significant role with certain species. In part, that’s because the problem of endangered species is so large and there’s very little space to do this kind of intensive management outside out of the species habitat.

Metzgar: I think it goes without saying that conservation is going to have to be across a multi-generational plan. Someone like Richard takes care of turtles for 20 or 25 years, and then passes the turtles off to someone else. That person takes care of the turtles for 40 years, and then he or she passes them off to someone else. It’s not as if the turtles are living and dying so quickly that in a hundred years you’re talking about the great-grandchildren of the ones Richard had. In fact, you’re potentially talking about the same turtles Richard had who are still alive in a hundred years. Or their offspring.

So when their habitat is being destroyed so quickly and conservationists are pulling the turtles from the markets to save them, how do we know where to put them? We don’t know where they came from. We’re not sure what they are. We don’t know what they ate. We don’t know a lot about the conditions in which they breed. So to recreate those conditions is really hard. So even if we save the turtles, how do we know where to put them back?

Amato: I think you raise a lot of very important questions, and some of these questions are scientific issues. How much information can we gather so that can we do a better job of what is essentially ecological restoration, or putting species back where they are from? Some of these questions are really philosophical questions. For example, what role do humans play in whether a species goes extinct or not? If our activities are responsible for driving those species toward extinction and yet we have animals within our facilities, is it our responsibility to do everything we can to keep that species for the future, even if we’re uncertain what that future might hold?

Metzgar: Let’s talk about the Asian turtle crisis. It was not something I was aware of before the making of the film. I thought Richard was just gathering turtles that he found throughout his networks that were endangered. But I quickly learned about the Asian turtle crisis.

Chances of the World - As a result of the capturing of turtles for food markets in Asia, many species of turtles are on the brink of extinction.As a result of the capturing of turtles for food markets in Asia, many species of turtles are on the brink of extinction.

Amato: It really is a tremendous crisis, and I think it was under the radar for a long time. In part, it also shows the connection between economics and conservation: The greatly accelerated pace of the crisis is significantly related to the growth of the economy in China. The way the Chinese economy roared forward has allowed for the Chinese to import large numbers of products, especially from neighboring countries. In this case, it includes turtles, which have traditionally been consumed as food in China. So the consumption of turtles isn’t new, but the increase in demand, and the amount and the volume of captured turtles, essentially vacuumed up entire species from areas in Southeast Asia. At the same time that was happening, we were beginning to find out through scientific studies that we didn’t even understand how many species were in these regions. Just as we were learning about the diversity and richness of turtles in Southeast Asia, these species were disappearing right before our eyes.

Metzgar: There’s a scene in the film where Richard is taking his dead turtles out of the refrigerator in his apartment. I treated it as an emotional scene in the film’s narrative. In fact, Richard was saving a lot of those creatures to be brought here to the Museum of Natural History for research purposes, which is not revealed in the film. Could tell us what that research program is about?

Amato: We have a very important frozen-tissue collection here at the museum, the Ambrose Monelle Cryo Collection. In the collection, we’re trying to have biological samples representing the whole diversity of life on the planet. Richard brought some very unusual and rare specimens to the collection, specimens that would be really difficult for researchers to be able obtain in order to learn more about these animals. It was really an enormous and valuable contribution.

Metzgar: I was wondering if you could talk about the relationship between evolution and extinction. If 50 percent of our country doesn’t believe that evolution is the natural process that brought us to this point, what does that mean for understanding and dealing with the process of extinction?

Chances of the World - Private conservationists and those from major institutions attend turtle conferences to learn about and collaborate on conservation efforts.Private conservationists and those from major institutions attend turtle conferences to learn about and collaborate on conservation efforts.

Amato: Speaking as an evolutionary biologist, to me, extinction is the rule. Ninety-nine percent of all species on earth are extinct. And so it’s a natural process. We see great accelerations in extinction due to events, some of which we think we understand, some of which we don’t. Some of the events may be cataclysmic events, like a meteor hitting the planet, or different things that changed the survival of organisms on the planet leading to outcomes like the extinction of the dinosaurs.

But what’s happening right now is an extinction crisis that’s entirely due to the activities of one species on the planet: human beings. It’s a unique event. Do we think about it as part of evolution? Is this just a natural process with humans playing this particular role? I think this is an interesting philosophical question.

What we do know is that the process of human-caused extinction right now is very different from the processes that have operated in the past. There is no similar example of a single species driving an accelerated extinction crisis, and so it raises the question, “What is our responsibility?”

Dr. George Amato is the director of conservation genetics at the American Museum of Natural History. In addition to administering this interdepartmental scientific program of more than 70 scientists, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, Dr. Amato continues to conduct research in conservation genetics of endangered species. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Columbia, Yale, and Fordham Universities. Dr. Amato is involved in conservation issues on a global scale working on projects in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean. He received his B.S. from the University of Connecticut and M.S., M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale University.