April 22, 2013

The Sixth Great Extinction

The first part of our series examining the loss of biodiversity.

Maggie: The honey bee…tiny…and sometimes annoying.

Making sure this is all the way buttoned.

But without little guys like this one pollenating plants, we wouldn’t have a third of the food we eat.

Oh, really? There are little baby bees right in there?

Yet over the past decade, honey bees have been vanishing from their hives, confusing scientists and alarming farmers.

It is not only bees that are going missing. Species of elephants, lions, rhinos, insects, polar bears, plants, tigers, cheetahs, birds, primates; they are all on the verge of vanishing from the earth…forever. Scientists say we are facing a great mass extinction.

Dr. Richard Pearson: We’re expecting that over the next few decades and the next century that we might well be heading into another great sixth great mass extinction event.

Maggie: So what exactly is a “great mass extinction”? Well, let’s back up a little bit. Before the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, back more than 450 million years when sea creatures dominated the Earth, experts say there have been five different mass extinctions since then. That is when about 70% of the species on Earth disappear within a few hundred thousand years. And now it is happening again, but this time it is much faster.

Dr. Pearson: It’s taken these millions of years for species to evolve and to have this wonderful diversity of life that there is on the planet. And within just a few decades, or at most a few centuries, we’re talking about the possibility of suddenly wiping that out.

Maggie: Researchers warn that within the next 300 years, more than 75% of today’s species could vanish.

Unlike the past five extinctions, scientists believe this next extinction is being caused entirely by us from things like habitat loss, pollution, overfishing and a growing human population.

Apple Goeckner: We’ve screwed up a lot in the history of the world and we’re starting to realize that we need these resources here.

Ashley Glover: We’re losing so much genetic diversity, and it’s things that you can’t get back.

Dr. Pearson: It’s very clear we’re effecting the climate, so we can be very certain that it’s human activities that are suddenly causing this huge stress on natural systems.

Maggie: Fewer species means a loss of biodiversity, the various plant and animal species on the planet.

Dr. Pearson: Biodiversity is not just something that’s out there for us to, kind of, enjoy in wildlife documentaries. It actually provides really important services for human kind and for societies all around the world. Biodiversity cleans the water that we drink. It cleans the air. It regulates climate. It provides medicines and building materials. Biodiversity pollinates crops.

Maggie: In the days ahead, we will look into what is making bees disappear, find out why an effort to help save the gray wolves has left many ranchers fearing for their cows, and meet a group of teens trying to save our future by banking seeds from our past as we look at this sixth great mass extinction.


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