Nfld. & Labrador

Rezori | Small extinctions in the big picture

It's easy to get nervous when talk turns to the spectre of endangered species, writes Azzo Rezori, who notes that the long view on extinction is pretty darn intimidating.

When a respected local scientist like George Rose says there's no biological danger of cod, redfish and American plaice going extinct, I take his word for it.

When his equally respected Nova Scotian colleague Jeff Hutchings adds that we may never see cod in its past abundance again, I believe him as well.

What else is new in a world which has the exasperating habit of changing on us, just as we think we're making the best of it?

Fisheries scientist George Rose does not see a need to declare cod an endangered species. ((CBC) )
As Rose suggests, the whole debate over whether to put those no-longer-so-commercial fish on Canada's official list of endangered species may indeed be nothing more than an unproductive paper exercise between two sparring federal government departments, environment and fisheries & oceans.

What, then, are we to make of the fact that nine species were recently added to or given a higher danger rating on our own trouble list in this province?

Right out of Shakespeare

Their names sound like characters from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Spearwort. Milkvetch. Fleabane. You can just picture them, pixies flitting about with woodland mischief on their minds.

In real life, they're plants. Seven flowers, one grass, and one lichen that have joined our relatively small yet growing list of species considered endangered, threatened, or at risk (44 in all by now).

Some of them are quite ordinary. Oval-leaved creeping spearwort is just a tiny buttercup despite its big name. Bodin's milkvetch is one more variety of beach pea you might not even notice while hiking the ocean's edge. Cutleaf fleabane is a semi-woody perennial with a tap root and small, daisy-like blossoms.

Lindley's aster looks like any other aster you might encounter in the still plentiful wilderness of this province. And you'd have to be an expert to pick out the graceful felt lichen from all the other lichens that give so many trees in our cool and damp forests their zombie-like flaking skins. 

A few have at least the appearance of being rare. Vreeland's striped coralroot is an orchid the colour of dead flesh — it has no chlorophyl of its own and feeds on other plants. The Alaska rein orchid, which grows in the moss groves of lark, black spruce and balsam fir forests, seems to be made entirely of pale-green jade.

Common there, rare here

Most of them share the same story. They're common enough in other parts of the world, but limited or reduced to one or two locations in this province.

But at least one, the rock dwelling sedge, has been found only in Quebec and on our west coast. The environmental pressure on it is human disturbance of its unique limestone habitat. Attempts to transplant it have largely failed. At this rate, extinction doesn't seem far way.

What are we to do. Mourn? Get angry? Shrug?

There's always the option of taking refuge in the big picture.

Some important points

And here it is:

1. The species alive today represent a paltry 0.1 per cent of all the species that have come and gone since the fossil record on this planet starts some 3.5 billion years ago. Extinction is a fact of life here.

2. There have been at least five major mass extinctions in the last 450 million years, not to mention dozens of smaller ones, and each time things have returned to a new (some might even argue better) normal.

3. Scientists have speculated a wide range of causes for all those extinctions, from volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes, and continental drift to climate change, glaciation, and swings in oxygen levels. Now there's growing speculation that we're well into another round, and this time the cause is us. Much as we might hate to admit it, we're nothing special either. We're simply another means by which the long history of extinction is about to repeat itself.

4. According to one estimate, 30 per cent of all existing species will be gone within the next 30 years, 50 per cent by the beginning of the next century. That may sound like a lot, but it's nothing compared to the great Permian-Triassic extinction of 250 million years ago. It wiped more than 90 per cent of all species off the face of the earth.

By that standard, we humans still enjoy a 40-per-cent extinction credit.

The problem with patterns

But there is a problem with the big picture. It reduces everything to pattern.

Pattern tends to translate into the inevitable, which in turn tends to translate into resignation and despair. And that's not going to help anybody, least of all the endangered plants.

Maybe patterns can't be changed in themselves, but they can be avoided. For all we know, volcanoes can't second-guess themselves before they spew disaster, nor can meterorites before they strike, nor tectonic plates before they shift. But humans can.

And what's second-guessing if not the opportunity to opt for another pattern — maybe even one that avoids extinction where it can be avoided? 

The feathery fake solomon's seal — tall, arching, with clusters of white star-like flowers in mid-summer and deep-red translucent berries in the fall — is still one of the more common among the nine newcomers to the province's endangered list.

But common is relative. After all, fewer than 125 specimens have ever been recorded in only three locations on the west coast.


Azzo Rezori


Azzo Rezori is a retired journalist who worked with CBC News in St. John's.


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