It is not a secret that the ecological situation on our planet is rather complicated. Apart from the common worries about global warming, industrial pollution, and rain forests being cut down, there is also the huge problem of the extinction of species; and while humanity can, hopefully, somehow stop the processes it is directly causing, it is unclear whether this extinction can be prevented or at least slowed down.
Although the words “mass extinction” definitely sounds alarming, it is not something uncommon for our planet. At the moment, we are witnessing the sixth mass extinction of species. During the past 500 million years, there already were five mass extinctions (with the largest of them being the Permian-Triassic and the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinctions, 245 and 65 million years ago respectively), causing from 14% to 84% of the genera or families to completely disappear from the fossil record. During the first of them, the majority of the marine invertebrates, as well as a huge number of terrestrial plants and insects disappeared; the second one mostly affected the dinosaurs. Even in a relatively not-so-distant past, some animal species had gone extinct completely: about 11 thousand years ago, during the Pleistocene-Holocene period, about 100 terrestrial species died out, including mammoths, saber tooth tigers, rhinos, and some birds (NCBI).
Moreover, there are two kinds of extinction: the one after which there is no “replacement” of an extinct species with a new, more adapted one—the “dead-end extinction” which is basically the end of a certain evolutionary lineage; and taxonomic extinction, which implies that during the evolutionary process, certain species had changed to such an extent that they should be considered a different species (NCBI).
Currently, there are 14,000 to 35,000 endangered species only in the United States; 16,928 species worldwide stand on the edge of dead-end human-caused extinction, and in order to save them, a significant amount of effort should be made. This is especially difficult considering the fact that every species’ extinction can lead to the disappearance of other species that are somehow bound to it: for example, if bees die out, many types of plants will not be able to reproduce, and will have either to adapt quickly, or will have to vanish. Such changes tend to accumulate astonishingly fast. Throughout the last five centuries, about 1,000 species of all possible sizes and shapes have gone completely extinct: huge mammals such as woodland bison of West Virginia and Arizona, US: passenger pigeons and Culebra parrots; Rocky Mountain grasshoppers, and so on. And this is just those of them that we can see relatively easy; it is probably impossible to calculate how many kinds of microorganisms disappear every day before scientists even get a chance to discover and study them. The size does not matter for nature: the tiniest organism is as important for the ecosystem as the largest of mammals (Center for Biological Diversity).
The good news is that it is in fact possible to not only slow down extinction, but to save some species from the danger of vanishing. In the early 1990s, there was a program of reintroducing captive-born condors to their natural environment in California, Arizona, and northern Mexico. Before the program was launched, there were about 20 of these condors left; currently, there are more than 200 of these birds inhabiting their “original” environments. The condor’s recovery, as well as some other examples, shows it is possible to move some species away from the extreme brink. For example, gray wolves, who were almost completely killed during hunting across the whole North America by the end of 1970s, are now a relatively prosperous species counting around 3,500 specimen. Northern elephant seals are nowadays numbered around 150,000 along the West Coast, although there were fewer than a hundred of them left alive just recently. All this became possible due to the significant efforts of reintroduction (National Geographic).
Moreover, with the power of science, it is possible not only to reintroduce endangered animals to their natural environments, but to bring back those of them that are believed to have completely disappeared. New discoveries in genetics, in particular the advancements connected to CRISPR-Cas9, give humanity hope of bringing back animals considered to have disappeared forever. Ecologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, believe the two species that would be especially reasonable to resurrect are the woolly mammoth, the last of which died about 4000 years ago, and the passenger pigeon, a gray bird with a red breast, once common all over North America and, which had gone extinct in early 1900s. Scientists believe that due to technological progress, the chances of such de-extinction, so to say, are high, so the question is not “if,” but rather “when” this will be done. Both of these species were functionally unique species strongly affecting their environments, so their vanishing had changed the ecosystems they lived in as well. George Church, the lead researcher working on the resurrection of a mammoth in Harvard University, believes these precursors of modern elephants would help turn the modern Arctic tundra back to grasslands: mammoths used to contribute to grasslands’ spreading by knocking down trees and spreading grass seeds in their dung. In their turn, the passenger pigeons were extremely important for the forests they lived in as well (ScienceMag). Reviving these two species will likely solve a number of ecological problems in an effective and quick way.
As it can be see, mass extinction is not something that had never happened before on Earth. Currently, we are witnessing the sixth mass extinction, with the main difference being the human factor greatly contributing to species’ disappearance. There are ways, however, to slow down or even turn back the processes of extinction; one of them, the more traditional one, is the reintroduction of cage-bred species to their natural environments. The other more advanced one involves the most recent advancements in genetics, and will probably allow scientists to resurrect animals believed to have gone extinct forever. Thus, there is still hope for planet Earth.
- National Research Council (US) Committee on Scientific Issues in the Endangered Species Act. “Species Extinctions: Extinctions Over Geological Time.” NCBI. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.
- “The Extinction Crisis.” Center for Biological Diversity. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.
- “20,000 Species Are Near Extinction: Is It Time to Rethink How We Decide What to Save?” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.
- “Should We Bring Extinct Species Back from the Dead?” ScienceMag. N.p., 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.
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The process to have a species added to the list can take up to a year. Species are listed by 2 classifications, threatened or endangered. A threatened species is a species that could become endangered in the near future without proper protection.
An endangered species is a species that could become extinct. To start the process someone must first file a petition or conduct a survey of the species. Anyone can file a petition providing there is enough biological evidence to warrant further investigation. Members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services or the National Marine Fisheries Service complete the surveys. Several factors help determine if a species is in need of protection. A few of those factors are: Changes in habitat, over utilization due to commercial and recreational purposes, disease or predation, and inadequate regulatory laws. Within 90 days of receiving the petition or survey they must decide if further investigation is warranted. If it is, then the candidate species are prioritized. First by the degree of the threat, then by the immediacy of the threat, and lastly by species classification. Once the final candidates are selected a proposed rule is published in the federal register. After this publication there is a 60 day comment period in which anyone can provide additional information and statements. The final step in this long process is a ruling. If necessary they can decide to delay their ruling for 6 months. If the ruling favors listing the species they then have to figure out how to protect them.
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There are many protective measures to help protect threatened and endangered species. The Endangered Species Act of 1973, signed by President Nixon, sets guidelines for these measures. Special regulations allow for flexibility in protecting threatened species. The Apache Trout of Arizona is a good example of how this works. Anglers are still allowed to fish in areas populated by these fish as long as they release them. The revenue generated by allowing fishing to continue helps to preserve the Apache Trout. The safe harbor agreement encourages private landowners to voluntarily implement protective measures. By following these measures, landowners will be free from future land use restrictions. Various grants are also given to states, territories, and private landowners for species conservation. In 2002, approximately 106 million dollars was awarded in grants. Reintroduction is another process used in which species from areas with thriving communities are relocated to areas they use to inhabit. The endangered species act has strict rules against the import of endangered species, living or dead. In an effort to help conservation in foreign countries, the Bush administration recently proposed relaxing these rules. If approved this would allow anyone to kill, capture, and import endangered species. The goal of this proposal is to provide a source of revenue to foreign countries for their conservation programs. The revenue is generated when Americans buy permits from these countries allowing them to kill or capture an endangered species. They would then be able to return the animal to the United States for various purposes, such as zoo exhibits or as trophies. Due to protective measures there has been some success.
In a report published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife services there are almost 1300 animals currently on the endangered species list. In the past 37 years only 30 animals have been removed from this list, seven of which were removed because they became extinct. This shows that the process to save an endangered species is both long term in nature, and very difficult. However, there are some encouraging success stories such as the peregrine falcon. A 1970 study found only two breeding pairs of falcons left in California. In 1999 after 29 years of study and work, the number of breeding pairs in California was in the hundreds and the peregrine falcon was removed from the endangered species list. Not all cases have a happy ending though. The Tecopa pupfish in Tecopa California was listed on the endangered species list in 1970 due to habitat alterations and the introduction of exotic species. Studies done 5 years later failed to find any pupfish populations, in 1982 they were declared an extinct species. While only 30 have been removed from the list many more have had their status changed from endangered to threatened due to conservation efforts.
Whether it’s a majestic lion or a tiny frog there are many animals that are endanger of becoming extinct. Identifying a species and adding them to the list is the first step in a long process. It may take many decades to be able to tell if the protective measures have worked. Since 1966 when the list first began only 7 species have become extinct. With any luck in 30 years maybe the number will still be only 7.
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