My son has a favorite animal, or at least my wife and I think he does. If you ask him what a sheep says, he will respond with an overly-enthusiastic “Baaa baaaaaa!!!” Many mornings, that is the sound that gets Chantel and me out of bed.
He also knows the sounds of horses, pigs, elephants, chickens, owls, cows, cats, monkeys, donkeys, goats, dogs, snakes and ducks. But if you ask him what a penguin says, which happens to be my favorite animal, he gives you a surprising answer:
It’s super cute. You see, one of the books that we have read to him literally a hundred times is Penguin Says Please. The book has accomplished its intended task – J.R. is quick to say “please” when he wants something. The unintended effect on a boy who loves his animal sounds is that he thinks penguins are inherently well-mannered.
I’ve given up on trying to correct my boy. I’ve seen penguin calls described as “an old car failing to start,” which is pretty accurate, and probably beyond the capability of an 18-month-old. When the time is right, I’ll sit him down and we’ll watch March of the Penguins to get him properly acquainted with the best animal on the planet.
So that was all an elaborate setup to talk about penguins, which then lets me talk about a great (though sobering) book that I read last year – Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. In the book, Kolbert shares a new story each chapter about a species on Earth that has either gone extinct or is severely threatened by human activity.
You have the little brown bat in the United States being attacked by a fungus. That fungus came from Europe, imported to America by human travel. You have the Sumatran rhinoceros, now estimated at fewer than 100 rhinos in the world. That species has dwindled in population as humans have cut down the forests in Southeast Asia, destroying the rhinos’ habitat.
The chapter that saddened me the most, however, was chapter 3, “The Original Penguin.” I never knew that a bird called the great auk (Pinguinus impennis) had once numbered in the millions in the northern hemisphere. About 30 inches tall, these flightless birds lived much as penguins do today, though they are members of different evolutionary families. In their time, great auks could be found nesting from Italy to Norway to Newfoundland to Florida.
By the mid-19th century, great auks were extinct. Humans had hunted these birds for their meat and their feathers, and their clumsiness on land left them vulnerable to hunters who could reach their nesting grounds. The term “sitting ducks” would apply if ducks couldn’t fly.
At the time, no one individual was to blame, and humans were not intentionally trying to wipe these birds off the face of the planet. Nonetheless, our species still did so. The people of the day simply weren’t aware of how their collective actions were impacting the great auks.
So too is it today. In general, we aren’t aware of how our collective actions, our societal trends, our public policies, and our economic activities are impacting life on Earth. That impact is still being felt, however. Naming that phenomenon the “Anthropocene” is a good start to raising the necessary awareness and, hopefully, creating change.
I urge you to read The Sixth Extinction. It will give you a fresh perspective on how precious biodiversity is, particularly in this Anthropocene epoch. And that’s the topic I’ll continue with next week.