Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Build a bigger ark

A conservation biologist (which is a modern mutation of the common, garden variety biologist) at the University of Colorado claims a math error grossly underestimates the probability of extinction facing many animal species: Piece. "A math glitch could mean the future of creatures on endangered species lists is even grimmer, as the calculations commonly used underestimate extinction risks by as much as 100-fold," The Boulder Daily Camera reported last week, rather breathlessly. Current extinction prediction models are flawed, according to UC Assistant Professor Brett Melbourne, because they "overlook random differences among individuals in a given population" of red-listed species. “When we apply our new mathematical model to species extinction rates, it shows that things are worse than we thought,” Melbourne told the paper -- though results may vary from species to species.

But a 100-fold increase in a probably bogus estimate still makes it bogus, right? Right.

This may be bad news for the planet, but it can only come as welcome news to the professional alarmists who make up the Chicken Little Lobby (comedian George Carlin savagely lampoons these types in my June 27 AC post). And, yes, this includes university researchers, since no one ever landed a federal grant claiming everything's right with the world. Just imagine the gasps that will go up, among people who still take such claims seriously, when the devastating new risk estimates are unveiled. Hundreds of species possibly going extinct every day! Yet this holocaust must be going on behind closed doors, since we rarely see the specifics of which species disappeared from the planet today.

Reasonable people will simply sigh, much as the villagers reacted to the boy who cried wolf.

Interestingly, when ticking off the factors that go into extinction risk analysis, there's nary a mention in the Camera article of that cancer on the planet called mankind, at whose feet most contemporary extinctions too-conveniently get laid.

"Extinction risk models now are based primarily on two factors," reports The Camera. "One is the number of random events adversely affecting individuals within a population — such as an accidental drowning of a rock wallaby, for example. Secondly is the impact of outside random events like temperature and rainfall fluctuations that can influence birth and death rates. But the additional factors highlighted by the researchers in the Nature study — sex ratio variations and physical variations among individuals — have been overlooked by those evaluating extinction risks, Melbourne said."

There it is in black and white: accidental drownings may be at least as great a danger to rock wallabies as humans are. Who woulda thunk it? But perhaps it's our duty to improve the odds for mishap-prone rock wallabies by intervening, as we are intervening on the side of the spotted owl in its territorial dispute with the barred owl -- gunning down one species of owl in a probably vain (and undoubtedly presumptuous) attempt to save another. Read a little more about it here. We might build wallaby-friendly river crossings, for instance, or dispatch an army of conservation biologists to warn unsuspecting wallabies away from steep river banks.

Or we might accept that extinction is sometimes part of nature's plan and refrain from acting as if this is all within our control -- and all our fault.

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