By Austin Monestel
If we go extinct, what animals will follow after us? Who knows, maybe a species smarter than us? A species that has all of our virtues and little of our flaws.
Imagine a world filled with only grassy plains and towering trees. Imagine living in this world, being oblivious to the world around you. Now imagine a bright flash of light, the Earth rumbles beneath your feet as the ground splashes like water. This was what happened to the dinosaurs and all the other animals on the planet about 65 million years ago. After a meteor hit the Earth, it created a chain reaction that killed 75% of all life on Earth at the time. We know about this because a crater 150 km in diameter still remains buried underneath the country of Mexico. This was only one of the five mass extinction events in the history of life on Earth. The names of all these events are: The Ordovician mass extinction, The Devonian mass extinction, The Permian mass extinction, The Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction, and the Cretaceous mass extinction. Ironically, the Cretaceous mass extinction (the one that killed the dinosaurs) is the most famous event yet it’s not even the deadliest mass extinction event. The deadliest extinction event was one that killed 96% of all life on Earth. One that had so much death that it even has the nickname “The Great Dying.” This was the dreaded Permian extinction. Okay that’s pretty terrifying, but what if I told you that a sixth corridor is being built in the Halls of Extinction? What if I told you that the next “Dying” is closer than you think?
Okay, enough fear! Now let’s get to the science! First, we need to define a mass extinction. The scientific consensus is that a mass extinction is an event or multiple events that cause a great number of animals to go extinct. Some articles even say that a mass extinction is an event or multiple that cause 75% or more of the current species to go extinct. However the majority don’t really have a specific number and instead focus on a definition that a great number of the animals went extinct over a short period of time. It’s important to understand that a mass extinction isn’t caused by only meteors like the Cretaceous extinction. In fact, any event that causes a great number of animals to go extinct can be considered a mass extinction. For example, the Permian was thought to be caused by a large number of volcanic eruptions which released a lot of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere and caused the climate to heat up. In addition, the volcanic eruptions also caused toxic chemicals to be released into the air and water which severely poisoned the Earth. Now that we understand what a mass extinction is we can look at how the world around us is following a pattern that leads to a potential mass extinction event.
So right about now you’re probably wondering how we could be in a mass extinction event? Well, it’s mostly our fault. Turns out, it hasn’t taken humans too long to mess up the Earth’s ecosystem. Believe it or not, homo sapiens (Humans) have only been on the Earth for around 200,000 years. To put that into perspective, dinosaurs roamed the Earth for 175 million years before they went extinct. Within 200,000 years we managed to make all sorts of animals go extinct such as the wooly mammoth, the wooly rhino, carrier pigeons, dodo birds, and many more. We even caused our distant ancestors, the Neanderthals, to go extinct. You’re probably thinking that we may have caused some animals to go extinct but that’s no reason to call it a mass extinction. The reality is that so many more animals will go extinct in the upcoming decades. We’ve already found that roughly ½ of land animals have lost 80% of their habitat. A good example of this is the lion habitat. The lions used to be found in the majority of Africa, the Middle East, and even up to Southern Europe. Now, lions are only found in select places of Central and Southern Africa. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) found that 38% of the species assessed are currently threatened with extinction. The majority of these animals are threatened due to human encroachment such as deforestation, overhunting, and toxic pollution. Some scientists say there may be a possibility of ever so slightly turning it around but that, unless we humans get our overpopulation under control, a “biological annihilation” is very likely. “The time to act is very short. It will, sadly, take a long time to humanely begin the population shrinkage required if civilisation is to long survive, but much could be done on the consumption front and with ‘band aids’ – wildlife reserves, diversity protection laws – in the meantime,” Prof. Gerardo Ceballos said in an interview with Guardian News. On the other hand, some scientists say that we’re in the beginning of a mass extinction event and can still easily turn it around. The worst part is, humans may even be on the chopping block. If this “biological annihilation” occurs and a massive amount of wildlife go extinct, then starvation rates may spike as people die of hunger. When this happens the population will be decimated and may even go extinct. In addition, as trees are cut down for human use the amount of carbon dioxide will increase causing the air to become toxic and a climate change similar to the Permian extinction will occur. This climate change will cause fresh water to evaporate as droughts become much more frequent.
That’s pretty scary, but there is a good side to everything, and mass extinction events are no exception to this rule. Mass extinction events may cause a large number of animals to go extinct, but you can also think of it as wiping the slate clean. Often, after a mass extinction event, new animals are given the opportunity to evolve. Before the Cretaceous meteor event, the first mammals were very primitive. They were rat-like ancestors that burrowed deep underground to avoid predators. However when the meteor hit, the first mammals were able to endure due to their ability to burrow and control internal body temperature. After the rubble settled, the first mammals crawled out of their holes to a world that was theirs. Those mammals eventually evolved into primates and then evolved into us. We would probably not exist if it weren’t for the meteor killing our worst predators. Now just think, if we go extinct, what animals will follow after us? Who knows, maybe a species smarter than us? A species that has all of our virtues and little of our flaws. They would probably be able to dig up our fossils. They would probably even figure out that we were advanced by the synthetic plastics that would most likely still exist by then. They would be very confused.