Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that nearly two dozen wildlife species would be removed from the endangered species list, as CNN reported, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, “the Bachman’s warbler, two species of freshwater fishes, eight species of Southeastern freshwater mussels and 11 species from Hawaii and the Pacific Islands.” This is not good news. The animals have been delisted because they’ve been added to a list of extinct creatures, one that grows longer each year.
Most of us have seen few, if any, of these animals and cannot grasp the scope of their loss. What does it mean to say there are no more Bachman’s warblers left on Earth? Species wiped out by climate change, overfarming, overfishing, or the encroachment of humans and invasive species can feel far away from us, their loss a distant tragedy; or extinction can seem inevitable, like that of the Dodo or Sicilian wolf, creatures that seem too fantastic for the world we now inhabit. So too, the dog-like marsupial Tasmanian tiger — or thylacine — an animal that lived as recently as 1936 when the last representative of its species, named Benjamin, died in captivity in Australia.
The thylacine looks like an evolutionary oddity, too weird to survive. But this judgment is a misapplication of Darwinism as egregious as the idea that only the “fittest,” i.e. those who can take good beating, survive. The day Benjamin died, September 7, has been commemorated in Australia as National Threatened Species Day, which raises awareness about the hundreds of plant and animal species close to extinction. The day also celebrates the hundreds of species found nowhere else in the world, animals that could come to seem to us in the near future as strange and exotic as the thylacine — a fascinating example of convergent evolution: a marsupial canid that evolved completely independently of wolves, dogs, and other canine species with which it had no contact whatsoever until the British arrived.
Found only on the island of Tasmania by the time of European settlement, thylacine populations were destroyed by disease, dogs, and, primarily, human hunters. Before the final member of the species died, they were kept in zoos and captured on silent film by naturalists like David Fleay, who shot the black-and-white footage just above of Benjamin at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania. In the video at the top, we can see the same footage in vivid color — and full digital restoration — thanks to Samuel François-Steininger and his Paris-based company Composite Films.
Sent an HDR (High Dynamic Range) scan of the film by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA), François-Steininger had to make a lot of interpretive choices. Next to “original skins preserved in museums,” the NFSA notes, his team “had to rely on sketches and paintings because of the lack of original color pictures or footage that could be used for research.” While there are 9 short film clips of the animals from the London and Hobart zoos, these are all, of course, in black and white. “Written descriptions of the thylacine’s coat gave them a general idea of the tints and shades present in the fur, information they supplemented with scientific drawings and recent 3D color renderings of the animal.” The results are incredibly natural-looking and startlingly immediate.
Are the thylacine, Bachman’s warbler, and other extinct species victims of the Anthropocene? Will our children’s children children watch films of polar bears and koalas and wonder how our planet could have contained such wonders? Geological epochs deal with “mile-thick packages of rock stacked up over tens of millions of years,” Peter Brannen writes at The Atlantic, and thus it overstates the case to call the last four centuries of climate change and mass extinction an “Anthropocene.” The word names “a thought experiment” rather than a span of deep time in Earth’s history. But from the perspective of critically endangered species — maybe to include, eventually, humans themselves — the transformations of the present seem squarely focused on our reckless behavior and its effects on habitats we never see.
We are far less important to geological time than we think, Brannen argues, but it does, indeed, seem up to us at the moment whether there is a future on Earth filled with plant, animal, and yes, human, life:
We haven’t earned an Anthropocene epoch yet. If someday in the distant future we have, it will be an astounding testament to a species that, after a colicky, globe-threatening infancy, learned that it was not separate from Earth history, but a contiguous part of the systems that have kept this miraculous marble world habitable for billions of years.