When you visit the World Wildlife Fund’s list of critically endangered species, the first animals named are large, beloved mammals like the African Forest Elephant and the Eastern Lowland Gorilla. While these majestic creatures tug at our heartstrings, there are also a lot of smaller, more unsung organisms that are in grave risk of extinction, like the lowly freshwater mussel. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to environmental writer, John Platt, the editor of The Revelator to talk about some of the less glamorous animals that have recently been declared extinct or are on the brink of extinction. First, we take a deep dive into the plight of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a regal swamp-dwelling bird whose demise may or may not have been premature. Then we discuss why Hawaii is referred to by some naturalists as the extinction capital of the world, and look at the ethical quandaries presented by the emerging field of resurrection biology, also known as de-extinction.
00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
00:18 John Platt (JP) – The domino effect happens all the time throughout the ecosystem and that’s why we’re facing major declines right now because it’s just a bit of attrition as one thing falls, another falls right behind it.
00:32 Narrator – When you visit the World Wildlife Fund’s list of critically endangered species, the first animals named are large, beloved mammals like the African Forest Elephant and the Eastern Lowland Gorilla. While these majestic creatures tug at our heartstrings, there are also a lot of smaller, more unsung organisms that are in grave risk of extinction, like the lowly freshwater mussel. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to environmental writer, John Platt, the editor of The Revelator to talk about some of the less glamorous animals that have recently been declared extinct or are on the brink of extinction. First, we take a deep dive into the plight of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a regal swamp-dwelling bird whose demise may or may not have been premature. Then we discuss why Hawaii is referred to by some naturalists as the extinction capital of the world, and look at the ethical quandaries presented by the emerging field of resurrection biology, also known as de-extinction.
01:50 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by John Platt. John is the editor of the Revelator. John, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
01:57 John Platt (JP) – Glad to be here.
02:00 AW – So for folks who didn’t hear our first interview on Sea Change Radio, why don’t you explain the mission of your work at the Revelator, chronicling extinction events and wildlife in general?
02:14 John Platt (JP) – Sure, the Revelator is an independent, editorially independent news and commentary site. We’re published by the Center for Biological Diversity, and we cover a lot of the things you’d expect from an environmental site, endangered species, climate change, environmental justice. We try to tell stories that aren’t being told in other places and try to give bigger context and get a bigger picture story. Not a little news story about a study that’s going to come and go in five seconds, but stuff that’s going to have a long life and stuff that’s going to influence people who are very educated and aware of environmental issues, who are very passionate about it and active in it, people who are activists, scientists, legislators, people who can use the information we publish to make a difference.
02:59 Alex Wise (AW) – And it’s not as sexy as the people who cover a specific endangered species going off into the most remote parts of the world to do the real legwork into trying to track these animals. But I think equally important is the work that you do which is trying to be like a central database for all of these species that are on the brink of extinction or extinct, but also carving narratives and trying to tell a story about each individual creature and how they all relate within this one.
03:44 JP – And one of our founding philosophies is that telling stories of species is telling stories of people, the people trying to save them from extinction than people trying to learn more about them. And these are species that are intrinsic to our culture, whether we realize it or not, they’re a central part of who we are as human beings and our and our role on the earth. So we try to tell that and we try to, you know, if we’re telling a story about a species that’s endangered by poaching, we try to broaden the context. The threats from poaching are how this poses problems for species and people.
04:20 AW – There’s been a sighting last year, I believe in Louisiana. A reported sighting of an ivory billed woodpecker, which had long been thought to be extinct. Why don’t you first tell us what your reaction was when you heard about this and then give us a back story on this very beautiful bird.
04:41 JP – Well, word about this research has been coming out for a little while. It was officially published in May 2023 as a peer reviewed paper, but it came out as a preprint in 2022. Both those versions of the paper included a lot of grainy photos and video snippets, and some first-hand accounts. And you know, if you remember The X-Files on Fox, Mulder, he had, he had a poster on his wall. “I want to believe” of a grainy photo of a UFO and then the photos kind of have that same quality. The ivory-billed woodpecker was last conclusively seen in Louisiana in 1944, although have been citing since then, possible citing in 2004 and hundreds of possible sightings in and around that time since then, but it always lived in swampy areas that aren’t exactly accessible to human beings. And even with improved camera technology and drones, it’s still hard to capture an image of anything conclusively.
05:44 AW – And why does this woodpecker? Stand out not only in terms of its. But why has it been pushed to the brink of extinction or possible extinction, while other species have flourished?
06:00 JP – Well, the ivory billed woodpecker is or was the third largest woodpecker in the world and the largest in North America north of Mexico. It had a 20 inch body and a 30 inch wingspan. Enormous and beautiful, really striking at the same time. It was never super populous. It was never really more than scarce because a big animal requires a big territory and a big food source. So it was elusive. It was mysterious. You’d see one flying overhead and people would say “Lord God, that’s a big bird!” They called it the Lord God bird for a long time and it was really valued by collectors. A lot of taxidermy samples exist around the world. That’s one of the reasons it disappeared was through hunting for collecting. Just to have one on your shelf in a lot in a museum or on a private collector shelf. And it also depended on old growth forest, which after the Civil war all the old Growth Forest and the Southeast United States, which is its primary territory from Texas through Florida and North Carolina. It’s all chopped down and it specialized in these old big trees and the grubs that burrowed through them. So without those trees, it had nowhere to live and nowhere to eat. So we it had a 2 tiered extinction path of habitat loss and deforestation and hunting. It’s just one of those mysterious big birds that people always wanted to see and it just embodies the extinction crisis that you’ve got the hope that it still exists.
07:50 AW – And do you think it exists?
07:56 JP – I always default to hope. Writing about the extinction crisis is, to me, as awful as it is, and as many species of obituaries as I’ve written it is an intrinsically hopeful act. We are trying to reverse the course of decline. And we are talking about the scientists who are out there learning about species and work and the activists trying to save them and as many as much as I’ve spoken to people who are haunted, who literally have nightmares about species declining and disappearing. They are intractable. Nothing’s going to stop them from continuing to look for species and trying to find ways to reverse the decline. So I default to hope. I think this paper does not give me any more conclusive information than I had that it may or may not exist. But if it does exist, this is probably the spot where it would be.
08:54 AW – And if there are a few remaining birds out there. What kind of chance does it have to come back in the wild or would this ultimately have to be something where there’s human intervention and deliberate breeding processes put in place to try to really let its numbers bounce back or could it be something as simple as like the way we eliminated DDT and allowed the bald eagle to start bouncing back?
09:24 JP – The threat of hunting is already gone. You’re not. No one’s going to be hunting or collecting an ivory-billed woodpecker.
09:30 AW – Yes, just to give our listeners a little bit of a background, I think a lot of the birds were getting hunted for food back in the depression era in some of these very poor rural areas of Louisiana.
09:45 JP – That’s right. But habitat loss is a harder thing to reverse, especially since this this bird relies on old growth forests. I mean it, it would make its nest, it was a it was a cavity nester, so it needed trees big enough to carve out a big nest inside it. Those trees take decades, if not centuries, to grow. So even if the if, if they do exist in a small, undisclosed stretch of Louisiana, and that stretch is preserved and protected. What’s going to grow up around it to enable them to have more room to expand their population. They may be for if they’ve stayed there safe there for decades and quiet in solitude in secret, they might very well persist. You or you always run the risk of a disease coming and wiping out the cell population of their genetics degrading. And a mutation entering the population or a predator or a big hurricane coming and wiping them out. So if they are found conclusively to exist, one of the avenues to save them could be captive breeding, in which case you’d have to bring them in and hope you understand them well enough to keep them well and safe and healthy in captivity and breeding. And then, of course, once you, once you do that, what do you do next? Do you keep them in captivity for centuries, or do you have it have it with the goal of eventually letting them back out into the wild?
11:12 (Music Break)
11:44 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to John Platt. He is the editor of the Revelator. So John, we’re talking about the ivory billed woodpecker you mentioned how it’s the third largest woodpecker species, I can’t help but ask what are the two largest woodpeckers and just in general, these larger birds in this category is the ivory billed woodpecker, the only one that’s really on the edge of extinction. Or are they all in danger?
12:11 JP – Well, I’m not an expert on the broader group of woodpeckers, but there is one I believe in Mexico called the Imperial woodpecker, which is even bigger. And looks a little similar, but any bird like that needs a lot of space. Ivory- billeds are not atypical. They bred for life. They paired for life. The pair would stay in the territory by itself for that might be a couple of dozen acres. Because that’s how much space it would need to find enough to survive. So you need a lot of territory and all birds that don’t migrate very far are facing a lot of pressure from their territory, shrinking and getting compressed. So it’s a fairly similar situation. The more beautiful bird, the more pressure it faces from hunting and the pet trade, whether legal or illegal. And the more habitat it needs, the more pressure it faces from deforestation farming of birds. They can be killed as pests. So it’s a tough situation for a lot of species out there.
13:28 AW – As a storyteller, what does the ivory billed woodpeckers story tell to you? And how do you relate it to some of the other species that you cover? Maybe give us a sneak peek into your thought process as you’re about to type something up.
13:44 JP – Yeah, this this is a species that we’ve already started to lose our connection to it. It was rare to begin with. It hasn’t been seen in decades. We’ve forgotten it existed for the most part, except for people who were dedicated to looking for it. But if we look back at the history, we find that people were amazed by it. They’d see a flying overhead that they would cast a shadow over them. There’s a sense of wonder and awe of witnessing and seeing these things in flight that’s lost and we need to regain that. And maybe trying to equate it with species we do still have, like the bald eagle, which now soars all over the place in almost every state, in almost every place. Birding itself is one of the most popular outdoor activities in the world. It generates billions of dollars worth of revenue. And people are always and I have friends who travel around the country looking for birds that they’ve only seen once or twice or might only have an opportunity to see a couple of times in their lives. So and then if you go further back with this particular species, there’s a lot of records of Native American tribes and having a relationship with the ivory billed woodpecker, whether whatever that might have been, but whether it was a cultural or for food in some cases, but it’s a reminder of what we have to lose. I think that’s one of the most important things. And this particular case, whether it’s iffy or not, that if it still exists, it’s a reminder that hope can keep us looking. And there’s always a chance we’re gonna find something new. People find new species all the time. Every week, every day I get announcements of new species being found and species being rediscovered, so the hope remains.
15:41 AW – And you were talking about these grainy photographs in Louisiana. I can’t help but think that one of the hopeful signs of the birding space is that we all now have cameras in our pockets generally and we’re in a different age for trying to connect with nature – many of us are. Unfortunately there are still people out there hunting these creatures. But a lot more people who have phones and want to document these things than ever before, that can get pretty high-quality photographic evidence of some of these rare species.
16:15 JP – And the more you share the photos, the more you get people interested. You know, one of the great things about this scientific paper that I loved is it talks about how the technology evolved over the 10 years they were looking in this Louisiana forest. They shot 70,000 hours of audio 472,000 camera hours, 1000 hours of drone video, and over that time period the cameras got better that they could. You know the trail cameras they could put out the drones got better. So even the grainy images that we have now, the best that they could do from this paper would not might not have been possible 10 or 20 years ago. So what’s going to be more possible five years from now or 10 years from now? The sky’s the limit.
16:57 AW – And then I noticed on the 2021 Fish and Wildlife report that had 23 species. They kind of did a whole extinction dump, if you will, of all these different species. I looked through that and yes, there were three or four, maybe 5 different types of mussels that have been now classified as extinct, but I noticed a lot of Hawaiian species. Why are so many Hawaiian species fading from existence.
17:28 JP – Yeah, Hawaii is often referred to as the extinction capital of the world. It has a lot of unique species because it is a group of islands. So you had a lot of evolution and created unique species, but as people settled the islands they brought creatures with them – rats, mongooses, invasives. And these things are goats and goats alone have eaten a lot of plants out of extinction. The mosquitoes carry malaria, which was not present in the Hawaiian Islands. And as climate change has warmed up the islands, the mosquitoes have enabled travel further and further up the mountains. Cold air use prevent them from going too far. So now you’ve got several bird species that exist only at the top of a couple of mountains, and that little top is getting short, smaller and smaller year and year out, and malaria. They have no they didn’t evolve with malaria, so they have no resistance to it. So they’re dying out. There’s a bird called the Akikiki, which is one of my favorite species. It’s named after its sound. Sounds like it’s named Akiki.
18:38 AW – That’s its call?
18:40 JP – Yeah. And not only has it been threatened by malaria, but now rats are climbing up into its nests and eating the eggs. So there’s only maybe a couple of dozen left if we’re lucky, and they’ve got a few in captivity. They’re working on captive breeding techniques. So I I’m confident that species could exist in captivity. Which would be great if we can prevent its extinction. But what is the habitat for their lose if it’s not there to to eat fruits and spread seeds and do everything and normally did as part of the ecosystem. It’s a diminished environment.
19:29 (Music Break)
20:34 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to John Platt. He is the editor of the Revelator. So John, it doesn’t sound like the ivory billed woodpecker is going to have like this domino effect. Obviously it’s all connected, but maybe you can point to some of the species that you’re following that scientists are looking at as being these keystone species to see how we’re doing in certain areas of the globe?
21:01 JP – Well, one of the first lessons that I’d like to start with is the fact that we can prevent extinct. Any practically every species that we’ve put on the US Endangered Species Act in time to do something about it has had its extinction prevented. Whether or not it’s recovered is another thing, because recovery can take decades if not centuries, because you have to mitigate the things that caused it to be endangered in the first place. And boost its population, but we’ve managed to stop the attrition for just about everything and that’s great, but I like to look at that iconic big predators like lions and tigers, and it’s actually a bit of a reverse situation. Tiger lions have lost so much prey because of what we call the snaring crisis in Africa where people are setting snares for bushmeat so as their prey declines and as as as lions and tigers face pressure from farmers and people trying to live their lives, they’re becoming rarer and rarer. There, there’s plenty of cases where a plant might be down to its last surviving member because it’s pollinator has gone extinct. And what happens then? You know, to the birds that relied on it for shelter or food also disappear. The domino effect happens all the time throughout the ecosystem and that’s why we’re facing major declines right now because it’s just a bit of attrition as one thing falls, another falls right behind it.
22:37 AW – What are some of the species that we should keep an eye on right now, kind of like we did with the bald eagle in the early 70s that was capturing the public imagination in in a very large way?
22:48 JP – Well, you mentioned that 2021 list of extinctions that the Fish and Wildlife Service put out included several freshwater mussels, and those are species that we really should be paying attention to it. Most people will never see a freshwater mussel, or if they see one, they might not even recognize it because it will just look like a rock but they’re dying out because of drought and pollution. And ironically, these freshwater mussels are one of the things that help filter out water and keep it clean for, for us and for a lot of other species. So as they decline, we suffer because their water becomes less pure or less clean, less clear, and carries a lot more pollutants. That can affect us. It’s kind of like we talked about seafood for a long time, gathering mercury throughout, you know, tuna and big other big fish. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum.
23:39 AW – Almost a canary in a coal mine scenario.
23:42 JP – Yeah, the tuna bioaccumulate mercury and other harmful chemicals. The mussels which we may or may not eat, just they’re the reverse is they decline, the water gets less clean and less safe. And we have a lot of endangered mussels in this country, hundreds of species that need our help.
24:04 AW – There’s obviously an ethical dilemma when one considers the woolly mammoths coming back and these Jurassic Park type salvation to a species using some very cutting edge technology. If they told you that they were able to get a sample DNA sample of the dodo bird and now there’s just a a nice little nesting area of dodo birds you can check out in in northern Oregon. Would that be something that would make you happy? Where do you stand on this Jurassic Park type technology of rescuing extinct species if possible?
24:44 JP – Right. Well, they call it de-extinction and to a degree it’s a misnomer. The woolly mammoth is never going to come back. Where you going to come back is to get come back as an elephant with some woolly mammoth DNA, so it might have certain characteristics, might have more hair.
25:00 AW – Is that just because it’s so many generations removed from being in existence?
25:05 JP – Yeah, you only have so much DNA available to you and you only you don’t have a woolly mammoth to gestate a baby wooly mammoth. So you can end up with something close to it. Now one of the reasons they want to bring back the woolly mammoth is it’s this pie in the sky idea that if they repopulate the Siberian. A whole fleet of cold, tolerant elephant type woolly mammoths. It’s going to pound down the permafrost and help prevent the further effects of climate change. There actually is an effort to de extinct the dodo again. They only have a certain amount of DNA they would have something like a dodo. But why we release sitting anywhere that the dodo didn’t exist in the 1st place? Why would one be in Oregon? Why would any be in Oregon? It just becomes an invasive species. Well then, my one of my ethical considerations is, you bring one back, or something like one back. How does it learn to become a woolly mammoth or a dodo? How does it learn to become a species that propagates and continues? What’s the ethical consideration with owning the genetics? We’ve got so many problems with the with corporate ownership of genetic material right now with crops and other things. Is that going to happen with living beings now there is an example the northern white rhino, which is right now down to the last three living specimens, all female sperm and eggs that they’ve collected and are managing to fertilize the eggs with the with the exact genetic material and then just using another rhino of another species is the host. They haven’t brought one to term yet, but they could, so there’s a possibility that this cloning technology could prevent and extinction, which would be enormous, because otherwise there’s no hope that the northern white rhino.
27:08 AW – That’s not called de-extinction. That’s rescuing a species from extinction in a very cutting edge sci-fi way, yeah. It doesn’t have that same the same barriers that you’re talking about with, like a woolly mammoth or dodo bird in terms of having a proper host and also a proper environment for it to propagate.
27:30 JP – And you know, I just think it what what’s the most ethical thing to do with the money that people? Spending for this the these two extinction projects, wouldn’t it be better put to use preventing an extinction in the first place? On the other hand, it’s probably money that would never go toward conservation, since it’s going from a lot of tech billionaires and people who are interested in the technology rather than the conservation end.
27:52 AW – Well, it’s always fascinating to check in with you and I appreciate the work you do at the Revelator. John Platt, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
28:00 JP – Thanks, Alex.
28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Quincy Jones and Bob Dylan. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.