Opinion

We’re heading for a world without puffins or toucans. Is that really what we want?

For decades ecologists have been warning about the homogenisation of diversity – species becoming more alike – in the living world. Now, researchers at the University of Sheffield have published research predicting that bird species with striking and extreme traits are likely to go extinct first. “The global extinction crisis doesn’t just mean that we’re losing species,” says the study’s leader, Dr Emma Hughes. “It means that we are losing unique traits and evolutionary history.”

This shows that human activity is not just drastically reducing numbers of species, it is probably disproportionately destroying the most unique, unusual and distinctive creatures on Earth.

What would it mean to no longer share a planet with the toucan, and its bodacious bill four times the size of its head, even if you never see one in real life? Or the elegant Bengal florican, which looks like a walking treble clef. Or the iridescent hummingbird? Or the bird of paradise, with its rococo coiled plumes?

Puffin at Bagh Mhiughlaigh (Mingulay bay).
A puffin at Bagh Mhiughlaigh (Mingulay bay). Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Many of the potential impacts are unpredictable, but bleak. As Hughes says, we are losing species that could “confer unique benefits to humanity that are currently unknown”. And we already know the knock-on effects of species loss can be catastrophic. The decline of vultures in India and the loss of their scavenging, carrion-eating niche has already had negative consequences for human populations, including the spread of disease.

This will not just affect faraway places with higher numbers of unusual species. “The extinction crisis will lead to a loss of morphological diversity in the UK too,” Hughes says. Unfortunately, the Atlantic puffin, one of Britain’s most-loved birds, and other unique seabirds such as the black-legged kittiwake and Leach’s storm petrel, are vulnerable.

Losing any species is tragic, but we’re also facing a decline in the species that inspire the most awe in humans. In short, we can expect the world to become “really simple and brown and boring”, Dr Eliot Miller, of the Cornell lab of ornithology, told the New York Times. More sparrows; fewer puffins.

Male peacock spider.
A male peacock spider. Photograph: BIOSPHOTO/Alamy

If you were captured by an alien and asked to make the case for why the Earth shouldn’t be blown apart, what would you say? As much as I love little brown jobs, I would think about the species so beautiful and unusual you can barely believe they are real.

I would tell them about the mandrill with its bright blue and pink face and rump. I would tell them about the hornbills that look as if they’re balancing a banana on their head. I’d mention the atlas moth that’s as big as a human hand. The peacock jumping spider, the Christmas-tree worm, the elf owl. I would tell them about the curlew, with its extraordinary curved beak; the kingfisher that bolts down the river like a turquoise meteor; the flamboyant antlers of a stag. I would tell them about mountain gorillas and blue whales and golden eagles. Baobabs, frogs and diatoms. Toucans! We have toucans!

It wouldn’t be difficult to argue, for the exuberant diversity of life on Earth is its signature and wonder.

Wonder isn’t just nice, or a luxury. Scientists have shown that experiencing awe has a measurable effect on human health. A study from the University of Toronto found that awe was the one positive emotion that could predict lower levels of unhealthy inflammation. Awe can also affect how we treat other people. People are more ethical, kind and generous after feeling awe, and despite our unprecedented estrangement from the non-human, we still get most of our experiences of awe from the living world.

All this focus on human emotions sounds awfully anthropocentric and a minor issue but humans are naturally curious – and curiosity thrives on variety and diversity. While denialism in the face of climate breakdown and extinction seems hard to budge, could this new deepening of what the biodiversity crisis means – a less interesting world – be a warning that cuts through?

A pair of kingfishers at Knepp, Sussex.
A pair of kingfishers at Knepp, Sussex. Photograph: James West

This latest research illustrates what the often hard-to-imagine biodiversity crisis looks like: a less resplendent, less vibrant world. It is heartbreaking, yes, but galvanising, and an opportunity for focus and pressure on those in power. The vast majority of us don’t want to live in a world bereft of toucans and puffins. Or a boring world, or a dying world. So would politicians care to mention how they square the myopic focus on “growth” with a burnt-out, used-up Earth that is clearly telling us to stop?

If we wipe out the species with the most unique traits, and continue to destroy the rich diversity of the Earth, we will all be impoverished in ways we can’t yet comprehend. Even if we never see a toucan in the wild, we are still their kin. Their wildness is still, in some way, part of us. We are still animals among animals.

  • Lucy Jones is a journalist and the author of Losing Eden and The Nature Seed

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