Humaninduced Mass Extinctions

Ever since ecosystems have comprised the living component of the planet, there have been periods where mass animal extinctions took place because of catastrophic events, such as the impact of large meteors, or because of relatively sudden drastic climatic changes, such as the onset of glacier periods. These types of mass extinction appear to have been a regular and natural occurrence in long temporal spans of ecological cycles and ecological change. What is a recent and new phenomenon in the history of the planet is the rapid mass extinction of animal species due to human-induced ecosystem changes. The most notable of these include agricultural expansion, industrialization, urban sprawl, and the appropriation of ecosystems for commercial purposes, such as forestry, fishing, hunting, and ecotourism.

All of these are closely related to climatic changes that affect animal life on unprecedented spatial and temporal scales. Ironically, tourists climbing on airplanes to see charismatic species in exotic locales contribute directly to climate change through the burning

Whales have been icons for conservation since the 1980s, but their iconic value is in decline in relation to arctic species.

of jet fuel. This, along with the iconification of global warming through images of animals, may give people an increased sense of being closer to nature. However, it does not encourage people to think about how their consumptive activities are contributing to climatic change and perhaps, ultimately, to the demise of the very species they wish to protect and preserve. These types of simplified understandings of nature and animals also hinder public understanding of the ways in which climactic changes impact the dynamics that characterize the lives of ecosystems, as opposed to more obvious geological changes.

Ecosystems are living entities, and as such they respond actively to change and difference by adjusting their patterns of behavior. Assessing environmental change from the perspective of an ecosystem requires paying attention to how patterns of relationships among the different species that comprise that ecosystem are altered and/or disrupted. It also entails paying attention to if new patterns of relationship emerge between them and what consequences this produces. Moreover, because these patterns unfold in distinct temporal frames, noticing change frequently requires long-term observation and study.

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