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19 October 2022

The natural world is vanishing before it has even reached our eyes

From resentful crows to narwhal tusks, we understand only a fraction of the Earth’s beauty. And now we risk losing it all.

By Katherine Rundell

If you were to choose an animal to double-cross, it would be wise not to pick a crow. They’re formidable in their intelligence, and sharp enough to hold grudges against us. In 2011, John Marzluff at the University of Washington released the results of a five-year study in which his students, wearing caveman masks, hunted down and captured crows that lived in the trees on campus, held them briefly in captivity, and released them. The crows, like very small Old Testament gods, did not forget, nor were they indiscriminate in their wrath. When the students walked past below without the masks, the crows ignored them, but when they wore caveman faces, the crows mobbed them, screaming and scolding. This pattern continued for months, then years: the fury and fear were passed, from parent crow to chick, through the group. In another experiment, mask-wearing students were attacked and reprimanded even after most of the original crows were dead.

Despite this new discovery – of the longevity, focus and discrimination of the bird – there is so much we do not know about the crow. Why, for instance, do they hold funerals for their dead, gathering around a bird’s body in groups, sometimes for days? Perhaps the greatest bird mystery relates to the ability of swifts and storks to navigate south for the winter. Many scientists believe it relates to a capacity to read the Earth’s magnetic field: but how, they do not yet know.

It is vital to realise that our learning, though impressive, is an infinitesimally small fraction of what exists. And there is so much that we are only just joyfully discovering about living things, just as they become more imperilled than at any time in human history.

[See also: Dead birds falling from the sky is a bad omen for the planet]

For instance: what is the purpose of the narwhal’s horn? For many hundreds of years, we said that the answer was obvious – it was magic. Identified as unicorn horns, they were believed throughout Europe to have supernatural curative properties; as late as 1789, a “unicorn” drinking horn was used to protect the French court, where it was said to sweat and change colour in the presence of poison. It wasn’t uncommon for the richest churches to have a unicorn horn, which they would grind into powder and mix into holy water to help their ailing parishioners – unicorns, after all, appear nine times in the Bible. Chester Cathedral still has a 17th-century narwhal tusk on the wall, offering up its silent magic to worshippers.

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We have since abandoned that explanation. The horn, we now know, appears when the calf is about a year old. It begins as short and thin asa little finger and grows up to ten feet long. Herman Melville wrote of the “nostril whale” in Moby-Dick: “Some sailors tell me that the Narwhale employs it for a rake in turning over the bottom of the sea for food. Charley Coffin said it was used for an ice-piercer… But you cannot prove either of these surmises to be correct.” It would, he suggested, make an excellent letter-opener. Because fewer than 15 per cent of female narwhals have the tusk, it can’t be necessary for survival, and so, when male narwhals were observed clashing horns it was often interpreted as rivals jousting in courtship and dominance.

In 2005, though, Martin Nweeia, a biomaterial scientist at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, found that the tusk is shot through with around ten million nerve endings, and posited that by rubbing tusks on meeting, narwhals may be passing on information about the salinity (and therefore propensity to freeze) of the water through which they have just passed. Not aggressors, it seemed, but cartographers. Then, in 2017, scientists recorded the first footage of a male narwhal using the horn as a kind of piscine weapon, swimming among shoals of small fish and stunning them in the water before eating them. So narwhal tusks are, perhaps, multi-purpose: for both guidance and hunting. But narwhals are designated “near threatened”. Due to climate change, the ice they rely on is shrinking too fast for them to adapt: without ice cover they will soon have nowhere to hide from killer whales, nowhere to feed; it is possible we will lose the narwhal without ever knowing for certain why the unicorns of the ocean grow horns.

There are smaller surprise discoveries, too, equally magnificent: for instance, in 2018 scientists at Manchester University trained a regal jumping spider nicknamed Kim to jump on command. Given a target, she never missed it; she had the accuracy of a gymnast. They – the spiders, narwhals, crows – are so much cleverer than we knew. Very rarely do we discover that any living creature is simpler than we thought.

Our knowledge of the world’s beauty and variance grows yearly. In 2018, a tiny tree frog was discovered for the first time in a nature reserve in Costa Rica. The frog, a brilliant highlighter green with red eyeliner, is small enough to sit on the top joint of a woman’s thumb and might have remained hidden for many years to come, had not the reserve’s owner heard its call, shrill and thin among the deeper night chorus. Named the Tlalocohyla celeste after the Celeste River, it is so delicate that parts of its skin are fully transparent.

In 2022, a new kind of mouse was described for the first time in Ecuador. Named Burneo’s Oldfield mouse, its tail is longer than its body, and it has a bright millennial pink to the inside of its ears. There has been a spiny lizard, Sceloporus huichol, in west Mexico, with a grey-blue body and a black collar; and a new species of fossorial frog in Peru which, chocolate brown, was named the tapir frog in honour of its long protruding nose. There is, finest of all in the beauty stakes, a bright red salamander from Panama, called the Chiriquí fire salamander. Discovered just a few months ago, it is thought, based on habitat and distribution, to be already endangered. We seem to have gained all this new wealth in just a year.

But the opposite is true. We are losing the Earth’s life at a staggering rate, to man-made climate change, habitat loss and degradation, and pollution. The Bramble Cay melomys, a red-brown rodent with petite ears, large feet and the Roman nose of an emperor, was declared extinct in 2019. The baiji, the long-nosed river dolphins of the Yangtze River, were declared “possibly extinct” in 2017. They had lived in the river for 20 million years. The splendid poison frog, which was the red of a London bus, was lost to deforestation in 2020.

The world teems with such life that counting is very difficult, but there are more than a million described species on our planet; perhaps closer to two. As to the unknown species, it’s a much-disputed subject, but there are probably 8.7 million – though others believe the number could be as high as 100 million species in the world. By the very worst-case reckonings, calculating from the rate at which we are losing known species, we could be losing as many as 270 unknowns a day.

It is not a mystery what needs to be done. The solutions are there, and they will be infinitely cheaper in the long run than inaction: an aggressive move to phase out all dirty energy, not ten or 20 years in the future but now; transnational carbon taxing; huge public investment in carbon capture. The rich are the most deadly: if the world’s wealthiest 10 per cent limited their footprint to that of the average European, global emissions would drop by a quarter. There has never in history been a greater need for the election of those who believe in the politics of radical global cooperation. We must seek to implement solutions not with leisurely calm – as if we had a train to catch, but the one after this one would be just as good – but in the way that a person on fire seeks water.

We are a careless people, humanity. It has never been more urgent to resist – to offer disobedience to those interested parties that would tell you to look away and acquiesce in the destruction of so many known wonders, and many million more yet unknown.

Katherine Rundell’s books include “Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne” and “The Golden Mole: And Other Living Treasure” (both Faber & Faber)

[See also: Summer reflection: the silence of the seabirds]

This article appears in a special issue of the New Statesman guest edited by Greta Thunberg and featuring contributors including Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Rebecca Solnit, Ai Weiwei and Björk. Read more from the issue here.

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This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency