The most astonishing and enthusiastic birds are facing extinction first – let’s stop boring nature. Lucy Jones

FOr for decades ecologists have been warning about homogenization of diversity in the living world – species becoming more and more alike. Now, researchers from the University of Sheffield have published research predicting that bird species with striking and extreme traits are likely to go extinct earlier. “The global extinction crisis does not mean we are losing species,” says study leader Dr. Emma Hughes. “That means we are missing unique traits and evolutionary histories.”

This suggests that human activity is not only drastically reducing species numbers, it is disproportionately destroying perhaps the most unique, unusual and distinctive organisms on Earth.

What would be the point of not sharing a planet with Toucan, and a bill four times the size of his head, even if you never see one in real life? Or the elegant Bengal Florican, which looks like a running treble clef. Or rainbow hummingbird? Or the bird of heaven, with its rococo coiled plumage?

Puffin at Bagh Mahughligh (Mingule Bay).
A puffin in Orchard Miughlagh (Mingule Bay). Photograph: Murdo McLeod/The Guardian

Many of the potential impacts are unexpected, but bleak. As Hughes says, we are losing species that “could provide unique benefits to humanity that are currently unknown”. And we already know that the effects of species loss can be devastating. The decline of vultures in India and the loss of their scavenging, meat-eating space already has negative consequences for the human population, including the spread of disease.

This will affect not only distant places with a high number of unusual species. “The extinction crisis will result in a loss of morphological diversity in the UK as well,” says Hughes. Unfortunately, the Atlantic puffin, one of Britain’s favorite birds, and other unique seabirds such as the black-legged kittywake and Leach’s storm petrel, are vulnerable.

Losing any species is sad, but we are also facing a decline in the species that inspire the most astonishment in humans. In short, we can expect the world to become “really simple and gray and boring,” Dr. Eliot Miller of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology told the New York Times. more sparrows; Fewer puffins.

Male peacock spider.
A male peacock spider. Photograph: Biophoto/Alami

If you were captured by an alien and asked to make the case for why Earth shouldn’t be blown up, what would you say? As much as I love little brown works, I would think of species so beautiful and unusual that you can barely believe they’re real.

I will tell them about the mandrill with its bright blue and pink face and rump. I’ll tell them about a hornbill that looks like they’re balancing a banana on their head. I would mention the Atlas Moth which is as big as a human hand. Peacock jumping spider, Christmas-tree worm, elf owl. I will tell them about the curls with my extraordinarily curved beak; Kingfisher rolling down the river like a turquoise meteor; The flamboyant horns of a stag. I would tell them about the mountain gorilla and the blue whale and the golden eagle. Baobabs, Frogs and Diatoms. Toucans! We have storms!

It would not be hard to argue, as the immense diversity of life on Earth is its signature and wonder.

Surprise is not just good or luxury. Scientists have shown that the experience of awe has a measurable effect on human health. A University of Toronto study found that fear was a positive emotion that could predict low levels of unhealthy inflammation. Amazement can also affect how we treat other people. People are more moral, kind, and generous after experiencing awe, and despite our unprecedented isolation from non-humans, we still derive most of our experiences of awe from the living world.

All this focus on human emotions sounds awfully human-centered and a minor issue, but humans are naturally curious – and curiosity thrives on diversity and diversity. While climate breakdown and extinctions seem hard to deny, could this new deeper meaning of the biodiversity crisis – a less interesting world – be a warning that cuts through?

A pair of kingfishers in Nap, Sussex.
A pair of kingfishers in Nap, Sussex. Photo: James West

This latest research reveals what an often difficult-to-imagine biodiversity crisis looks like: a less resplendent, less vibrant world. It is heart-wrenching, yes, but encouraging, and an opportunity to focus and pressure those in power. Most of us don’t want to live in a world devoid of toucans and puffins. Or a boring world, or a dying world. So would politicians care to mention how they tend to focus on “development” with a burnt out, used-up earth that’s clearly telling us to stop?

If we wipe out the species with the most unique characteristics, and continue to destroy Earth’s rich diversity, we will all become poorer in ways we do not yet understand. Even if we never see a toucan in the wild, we are still their kin. Their wildness is still a part of us in some form or the other. We are still animals among animals.

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