Out of sight…

18 January 2010

Chinese stamp celebrating the recently (or very soon-to-be) extinct Chinese Paddlefish.

Many African societites divide humans into three categories: those still alive on the earth, the sasha, and the zamani.  The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead.  They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote.  When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead.  As generalized ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered.  Many, like George Washington or Clara Barton, can be recalled by name.  But they are not living-dead.  There is a difference.” – Loewen 1995, Lies My Teacher Told Me.

Historiographer James Loewen’s account of the Swahili concepts of zamani and sasa(=sasha) might be an oversimplification of a complex ontological semi-dichotomy.  It is nevertheless an interesting distinction and one that can be applied not just to dead ancestors and historical figures, but extinct species.  Martha, the last known living Passenger Pigeon, died in 1914 – it is possible that at least a handful of children that saw her in the Cincinnati Zoo before her death might still alive, but probably not for so much longer.  She’s well on her way to Zamani.  The Great Auk, which went extinct in the mid 19th Century is definitely Zamani–there is no human alive today that has ever seen a living Great Auk.  The last captive Thylacine, which may or may not have been known as “Benjamin,” died in 1936 and I would imagine there are a few alive today that remember him (or her).

Conservation biologists have their own euphemism that captures the hazy purgatorial zone between the life and death of a species: “functional extinction.”  When an animal only exists in captivity, or exists in the wild in such low numbers that it cannot sustain a viable breeding population, it is said to be “functionally extinct.”  Perhaps the most widely publicized recent “functional extinction” was that of the Baiji, Lipotes vexillifer, the unique archaic Yangtze River dolphin that was last seen in the wild 2004.  Intensive searches for the last surviving individuals in 2006 came up empty-handed and the species was declared functionally extinct in a 2007 paper in Biology Letters.  Purported subsequent sightings, even if they turn out to be correct, offer very scant hope that the species will escape extinction, functional or otherwise.

Less publicized, but equally depressing, is the critical decline of other endemic Yangtze river species including Psephurus gladius, the Chinese Paddlefish, depicted on the stamp at top.  This fish is (or was) among the largest freshwater fish species in the world.  The Chinese Paddlefish is (or was) one of two living representatives of an unusual fish family with a fossil record stretching back more than 100 million years to the Early Cretaceous.  Like the Baiji, Psephurus has been done in by a lethal combination of overfishing, heavy river traffic and habitat degradation in the form of dam construction and pollution.  Like the Baiji, recent efforts to locate the few remaining paddlefish in the hopes of relocating them and preserving them in captivity at least, have failed.

Having now disappeared from the wild, the Baiji and the Chinese Paddlefish are going through a second type of extinction, they are already beginning to fade from memory.  A thought-provoking, if saddening, paper documenting this was recently published in Conservation Biology. Through extensive surveys with fisherpeople, the researchers, which include some of team which announced the extinction of the Baiji, document a strong correlation between age and likelihood that the respondent had personal memory of the functionally extinct species.  The youngest individuals surveyed were much less likely to have encountered paddlefish or Baiji.  Amazingly, more than two-thirds of those under 40 had never even heard of the Chinese Paddlefish and did not recognize photographs of the fish.  Within the same age class less than one-quarter had never heard of the Baiji, but many of those that had knew of the animal only from second-hand accounts from community elders or media reports.  Something to think about the next time you hear someone try to link accounts of mythical creatures to cultural memories of extinct megafauna.

No doubt the Baiji, and perhaps to a lesser extent, the Chinese Paddlefish will be remembered and revered by generations of biologists to come.  But the people that lived alongside them for centuries are already beginning to forget.

4 Responses to “Out of sight…”

  1. Hugh Says:

    Great post, Neil. Very sad too, how zoology has in some ways become a subdiscipline of history.

  2. Neil Says:

    Thanks Hugh. Sometimes I feel like more of a historian than a scientist, which probably doesn’t bode well for my prospects of eventual gainful employment…

  3. This is a great site, I love the theme you are using. I Stumbled it for you and bookmarked it on Digg.

  4. Neil Says:

    Hey Diaper Cake Party,

    Diaper Cakes?


    That doesn’t even make any sense.

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