The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

This past month Skidmore College welcomed Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History back to campus. Sponsored by the the Saratoga Springs Public Library, the Gannett auditorium was nearly full with an overwhelming majority of older members of the community, along with a smattering of Skidmore students and faculty.

The lecture was laid out in sections, each of which introduced a species at the brink of extinction — as well as its value in the ecosystem, its history, and native habitat. The people involved in species restoration and conservation and the strategies that they are employing were also included. Kolbert explored the fates of five species: two of which were birds, a species of tree, the American Chestnut, a species of coral, and a species of elephant.

Given that Kolbert's main area of interest is biodiversity loss, there was little expectation for the lecture to be very optimistic, and indeed the realities presented were very stark and matter of fact. But, Kolbert still managed to inject humor and lightheartedness throughout the lecture. Intermingled between the tragic loss of these species and the arduous uphill battles to save them were charming and funny anecdotes that made the species all the more interesting and memorable.

For example, a Hawaiian Crow like species – the ‘Alala – of which one of the birds, named Kinohi, is, as Kolbert put it, very much sexually confused. Despite being one of the few males left in the world, Kinohi has not managed to figure out breeding — much to the chagrin of conservationists — and is afraid of others of his species. During the second half of the lecture, it was revealed that a small group of the ‘Alala species had been sent out and that all perished within days. Conservationists are still working on how to allow for a successful reintegration of the species.

Kolbert also spoke of ocean warming and acidification, causing coral bleaching, which is a result of the symbiotic organisms on the coral detaching due to increased temperatures leaving the coral vulnerable and unable to produce its own food.

Not all stories were so bleak, however, and Kolbert expressed tentative enthusiasm for the American Chestnut as a researcher. A version of the species that is resistant to the disease that once decimated its numbers has been developed. The American Chestnut may once more be as plentiful as is it was some two-hundred years ago. She also described initiatives taking place in Africa to create a database of elephant excretions to collect their DNA, that then can be cross referenced with tusks found in raids of illegal shipments in China. In doing so, authorities within big game countries have been able to focus their energies on where elephants are actually being hunted and taken from.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A in which audience members asked a range of questions on the current state of some endangered species and shared recent developments in the news that they had come across. Questions on genetic engineering and the ethical implications of manipulating genetic information of vulnerable species were explored, as well as ideas on how the average person can help (reducing carbon emissions, donating to a charity that works with species conservation and restoration, staying informed, etc).

The event concluded by a meet-and-greet and book signing outside of the auditorium. The Sixth Extinction and Kolbert’s many other titles can be found online for purchase.

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