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Species Watch
Encyclopedia of Life
November 27, 2009

Asteroids, volcanos, floods, glaciers and sun-blocking dust clouds — these are some of the most likely culprits behind what scientists describe as the five great extinctions, times when conditions on the earth changed so drastically that huge majorities of earth's species disappeared.

The last was 65 million years ago, but now many scientists agree we're in the midst of the "sixth great extinction," and the terrifying threat to life on earth is...people. Research shows that, starting about 50,000 years ago, species began dying out rapidly, as humans discovered and settled new continents and islands. Fossil records show that in nearly every case, shortly after humans arrived, huge numbers of species disappeared.

As our population grows, our impact on the planet increases, our pollution and the invasive species our peripatetic habits have strewn around the earth are destroying fragile ecosystems at an increasing rate.

The figures are startling. Scientists estimate that if trends continue at least half of the species now on earth will be gone by the end of the century. And, as Jeff Corwin reports in his new MSNBC special, 100 HEARTBEATS, many iconic animals are on the verge of disappearing from the wild — rhinos, the Sumatran Orangutan, elephants, and cheetahs among them.

Saving Species

But, though these figures are bleak, Jane Goodall argues in her book, HOPE FOR ANIMALS AND THEIR WORLD, that people shouldn't lose hope: "It is true that we are experiencing the 'sixth great extinction on earth,' with thousands of species (mostly small, endemic invertebrates and plants) disappearing, forever, every year. And while we sink into despair or anger as we see how our own prolific and self-centered species continues to destroy, there is yet this feeling of hope. There are surely plants and animals living in the remote places, beyond our current knowledge. There are discoveries yet to be made. And the stories we share here, reports of fascinating new species discovered or rediscovered, give me new strength to face and fight the challenges that threaten our still-mysterious, still-magical planet."

Jane Goodall has done much in her own life to protect the earth's diversity — which you can read about here — and many other organizations and individuals are rising to the challenge, some of whom Goodall featured in a special on Animal Planet, JANE GOODALL'S HEROES. You can explore some of the other organizations protecting biodiversity below.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
"The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Programme working with the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) has for more than four decades been assessing the conservation status of species, subspecies, varieties, and even selected subpopulations on a global scale in order to highlight taxa threatened with extinction, and therefore promote their conservation."

The World Wildlife Fund
The WWF's mission is the conservation of nature. Towards that end, WWF works in 100 countries, and is supported by close to 5 million members across the globe.

>>More on what you can do to protect the environment.
Related Media:
Medical practitionersE.O. Wilson
Bill Moyers talks about the future of our planet with noted entomologist and father of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson. (July 6, 2007)

Medical practitionersMoyers on the Environment
We've collected JOURNAL coverage of the environment — selections from the father of sociobiology E.O. Wilson to the environmental risks for mountaintop mining to a photographic artist who makes pictures out of our trash.

Medical practitionersMOYERS ON AMERICA: IS GOD GREEN?
The 2006 film IS GOD GREEN? documented the debate among evangelical Christians over the environment.(October 11, 2006)

Medical practitionersNATURE: Crash, A Tale of Two Species
In the film Crash: A Tale of Two Species, filmmaker Allison Argo tells the story of nature's amazing ability to create fragile connections among the most unexpected creatures, and of our potential as humans to destroy those connections — or restore them.

References and Reading:
"Human activity is driving Earth's 'sixth great extinction event'"
By Ian Sample, THE GUARDIAN, July 28, 2009.

"100 Heartbeats"
Naturalist Jeff Corwin tells the story of the "Sixth Extinction" -- caused by people.

"17,000 Species Face Extinction, Group Says"
By Lisa Girion, LA TIMES, June 17, 2009.

"The Sixth Extinction?" (Subscription only)
By Elizabeth Kolbert, THE NEW YORKER, May 25, 2009.

Find out more about the 17 countries that host 70 percent of the earth's species.
Also This Week:
Dr. Jane Goodall. Despite dire warnings for our endangered planet, Jane Goodall says all is not yet lost – we can change course if we act now. 

A global environmental and humanitarian youth program of The Jane Goodall Institute.

Checking in on the welfare of threatened and endangered species.

Simple things you can do to made a difference for the environment. Plus, a collection of reports on the environment.

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