From doom to bloom: The bright side to extinction

Elysa Ng

Fifteen-year-old. Loves life sciences and literature.

Jakarta

Jakarta, posted: Fri, December 22, 2017 | 01:53 pm

Hu Chun, a female giant panda on a breeding loan from China, enjoys munching on some bamboo leaves. While the panda has become an icon of environmental conservation, a young naturalist suggests taking another look from the "survival of the fittest" principle. (JP/PJ Leo)

In the North Pole today, polar bears are now quite close to their neighbor, the grizzly bear. Before, the two creatures were recorded as living separately, as they required different environments to survive. Things have changed, thanks to climate change.

The polar bear is encroaching grizzly bear territory in search of food. Due to their proximity, the animals are mating, forming a hybrid bear the size of a polar bear with the hump of a grizzly bear.

It seems that these hybrids are becoming more common, as evidenced by the number of reported sightings. DNA tests prove that these creatures really are polar bear-grizzly bear hybrids. Dubbed "grolar" or "pizzly" bears, they are now said to be taking over the Arctic Circle.

This is bad news for the polar bear, as its gene pool will eventually become diluted and slowly disappear, taken over by the grizzly bear’s more dominant genes. Will this be the end of polar bears? Will they survive climate change and the mixing of genes with the grizzly bear?

But then again, the world is changing, so who knows? Maybe if the polar ice caps all melt one day, that will be the end of the polar bear. But through the grolar bear, the polar bear's lineage will continue to live on, even though it would be mixed with the grizzly bear. It could even be said that the polar bear is evolving to keep up with climate change.

The polar bear is just one example of inter-species breeding. There is another case, that of the sika-red deer hybrid, that is happening completely naturally in the wild. It is another example of how these animals are adapting to their changing environment.

Another famous, albeit historical, example could be the dinosaurs. Not all dinosaur species were wiped out: Some species survived to evolve and live on in the form of modern-day birds. The dinosaurs evolved into birds, forced to adapt because of rapid environmental changes.

Are we in the middle of seeing a new era of evolutionary change? Could it be possible that humans are a catalyst to evolving species? Humans are pointed out as the main cause of much of the damage to nature. Many experts agree that humans are responsible for the greenhouse gases that are depleting the ozone layer, causing ultraviolet rays from the sun to cut through the Earth's atmosphere to melt the polar ice caps; humans are also responsible for deforestation and relentless poaching that lead to the disappearance of flora and fauna alike.

A case in point is the panda, which is endangered as a result of man-induced deforestation. While other animal species might easily move somewhere else, it’s not that simple for a panda, which feed on various species of bamboo. Pandas are also known for taking a long time to breed, requiring the right time and the right temperature to mate, and they have cubs with a very low survival rate. The panda requires lots of time and money to save.

It might take decades for panda numbers to recover — and lots of valuable money will be lost in that time. Are they actually worth saving from the edge of extinction? Although the panda is a very important species, the chances of it surviving without human intervention are very small. If it can’t catch up with the present world, then it might be best to let it die out according to the "survival of the fittest" evolutionary principle.

A group of naturalists agree that instead of conserving the panda, the money could be used on other, more important species that are actually on the brink of extinction, that only have 50 or so individuals left in the wild. The money could be used for intensive breeding programs for these species and for saving the remaining few in the wild from the threat of poachers.

Another way is to prioritize species that are actually more important to the ecosystem, species whose disappearance would lead to the collapse of an entire ecosystem. Millions of dollars could also be channeled to save species that are generally cheaper and easier to conserve, creatures that breed easily and quickly, and can be moved to a safer area where they could thrive.

But does it really matter if some species go extinct? Imagine that the polar bear, the tiger, the rhinoceros and the panda eventually go extinct. Every animal is important to the ecosystem, but then again, the ecosystem is always changing. It could be for the greater good in that it would force us humans to face the future.

“It is entirely possible that the long-term consequence of the evolution of homo sapiens will be to increase the number of species on the Earth’s land surface," writes Chris Thomas in Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. He also mentioned in an interview how human intervention was creating hybrids all over the planet. This wasn't just happening with animals, it's happening with plants, too. According to Thomas’s calculations, the number of species on this planet would double as a result of human intervention.

In the end, with or without human intervention, nature will still continue its circle of life. Doom can somehow bring with it, hope. While some species might be wiped out, new ones will also appear on the planet eventually.

To save them or not is still entirely up to us. We may simply choose to bear witness to these new changes in nature while our technologies that affect the climate impact natural selection.

But keep in mind the survival of the fittest: Only the strongest species have ever survived for long on this planet. (dev/kes)

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Elysa Ng is a junior high school student and a passionate supporter of environmental conservation and protection. She loves wild animals, reading, writing and white chocolate, and has been writing seriously since she was 10.

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wildlife animal-conservation polar-bear panda