The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Dearly Beloved


Tomorrow is Hallowe’en, of course. A rollicking, morbid carnival, a celebration of the mortal flesh through sugar, alcohol, fake blood, and sex (if you don’t believe me about the sex, look at the women’s costumes available in stores), a blurring of identity and the thrill of things that go bump in the night.

I could write about the impact of the holiday on global warming, but that’s been done. I could write a scary story about our possible future, but that’s been done, too.

But, basically, I’m not all that interested in Hallowe’en anymore. I’ve grown out of trick-or-treat and I’m not frightened by blood, fake or otherwise. I’m more interested in the older traditions of taking a day to honor and remember the dead. This is therefore a Day of the Dead post, a Samhain post. I want to mark and honor the dead of climate change–not as a scare tactic or a self-flagellation of guilt, but simply as an act of witness. Because it is the right thing to do.

There are several possible ways to go with this. I could focus on individuals who have died of climate change, but linking global warming to particular deaths is very difficult. The result would also be too similar to my recent post comparing the mortality rates of climate change and Ebola. Instead, I want to honor whole species that have died. I’ve often thought that reading a list of recently extinct species names, the way the names of individuals lost to some accident or disaster are sometimes read, would be a powerful way to add an ecological dimension to Samhain. I’ve never done it, in part because finding such a list is difficult. Compiling a list of the extinct is hard, since we don’t always know a species exists before it stops existing again, and because it’s hard to be sure a whole species is really gone and not holding on in some remnant population somewhere. What lists exist seldom turn up whole on Internet searches, perhaps because many of the species on the list are plants and animals most people have never heard of.

Still, I intend to observe the Day of the Dead by formally noticing our planetary losses.

Looking for Smoking Guns

Which species, if any, have gone extinct because of climate change is a bit complicated.  I addressed the question in some depth in an earlier post, but it comes down to the difference between ultimate cause and proximate cause; if you fall off a cliff, the ultimate cause of your death is your poor footing, while the proximate cause is your impact with the ground. The problem is that the connection between those two causes is rarely as obvious or straight-forward as in my example.

Climate change as the ultimate cause of extinction might be linked with any number of proximate causes. Some of them are: drought; habitat loss (think polar bears and ice); the extinction or relocation of an ecological partner; and new competitors, pests, or diseases that take advantage of warmer weather. Of course, most of these problems can have other ultimate causes as well. Climate change is not likely to be the species’ only major problem–consider the paper birch, which is dying out in parts of New England because of a combination of exotic diseases, climate change, and probably the age of the relevant stands. Against this complex backdrop, it is hard to say for certain which extinctions actually belong at global warming’s door.

Some years ago, scientists announced the extinction of the Seychelles snail, the first species known to be extinct because of climate change. Fortunately, a previously unknown population of the snail turned up recently–it’s not extinct at all (though presumably it’s still in grave danger). Many writers have treated the snail’s resurrection as some kind of embarrassing “oops” for climate scientists, which of course it is not; the species took a huge hit because of global warming, and the fact that it’s still hanging on is great news. Confirming an extinction is very, very hard–a bit like looking for the absence of a needle in a haystack. Mistakes are inevitable, and welcome.

The golden frog and the Monteverde harlequin frog are sometimes cited as victims of climate change as well. The proximate causes of golden frog’s demise were habitat loss due to drought and the chytrid fungus, which could be exacerbated by climate change. Chytrid has killed or gravely endangered many other amphibians world wide, so at least some of them might be considered victims of climate change as well. There are a few other examples. Probably there are some no one knows about yet.

But there is another way to look at all of this.

Consider whether a hypothetical animal hunted to extinction for the international exotic meat trade is a victim of climate change? It’s hard to send meat across the world without fossil fuel, after all. Or, what about habitat destruction due to human over-population, when humanity wouldn’t have gotten this big without lots of cheap energy? Does it really make sense to say climate change causes extinction only by changing the climate? Or do these other factors that would not exist if climate change did not also count?

Climate change itself has a cause, and that cause has other effects. As I explained in another previous post, our burning fossil fuel has destabilized the biosphere as a whole by altering how energy flows through the system. Climate change is one consequence of that destabilization, but systemic biodiversity loss is another. That is, whether the proximate cause of an extinction is over-hunting, habitat loss, the presence of an invasive exotic pest or disease, the use of pesticides, or something else, it usually traces back to the use of fossil fuel somehow. Because fossil fuel is part of the biosphere and free carbon dioxide is not–burning the stuff therefore shrinks the biosphere, and biospheres lose species when they shrink. That’s physics.

So, it’s a good bet that most extinctions over the past century or so have something to do with climate change, directly or indirectly.

We know what to do about it. You know what to do about it. But this is the festival to honor the dead, and we should take a moment to do that–to remember that these are not just numbers, political statements, arguments, but actual animals and plants, whole ways of being, that will not have any more children.

I did find a list of historical extinctions today. It is only partial, but fairly inclusive. You can look it up here, but there are too many for me to copy over all of them. I’ll just focus on those that have been lost since my birth.

The Honor Roll

Pinta Island Tortoise

Chelonoidis abingdoni

Last seen, 24 June 2012


Vietnamese Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus

Last seen, 29 April 2010


Christmas Island Pipistrelle

Pipistrellus murrayi

Last seen, 27 August 2009


Chinese Paddlefish

Psephurus gladius 

Last seen, 8 January 2007


Yangtze River Dolphin

Lipotes vexillifer 

Last seen, before 2006



Melamprosops phaeosoma

Last seen, 28 November 2004


Saint Helena Olive

Nesiota elliptica

Last seen, December 2003


Vine Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula labrusca 

Last seen, 2002


Pyrenean Ibex

Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica 

Last seen, 6 January 2000


Sri Lanka Legume Tree

Crudia zeylanica

Last seen, 1998



Hemignathus lucidus

Last seen, 1998


Western Black Rhinoceros

Diceros bicornis longipes

Last seen, 1997


Aldabra Banded Snail

Rhachistia aldabrae

Last seen, 1997


Zanzibar Leopard

Panthera pardus adersi

Last seen, 1996


Swollen Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula turgida

Last seen, 1 January 1996

Golden Toad

Incilius periglenes

Last seen, 1989


Antitlan Grebe

Podilymbus gigas

Last seen, 1986


Alaotra Grebe

Tachybaptus rufolavatus

Last seen, September 1985


Eungella Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus vitellinus

Last seen, March 1985


Kaua’i ‘O’o

Moho braccatus

Last seen, 1985


Christmas Island Shrew

Crocidura trichura

Last seen, 1985


Ua Pou Monarch

Pomarea mira

Last seen, 1985


Amistad Gambusia

Gambusia amistadensis

Last seen, 1984


Conondale Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus silus

Last seen, November 1983


San Marcos Gambusia

Gambusia georgei

Last seen, 1983



Myadestes myadestinus

Last seen, 1983


Guam Flycatcher

Myiagra freycinet

Last seen, 1983


Aldabra Warbler

Nesillas aldabrana

Last seen, 1983


Galapagos Damselfish

Azurina eupalama

Last seen, 1982


Marianas Mallard

Anas oustaleti

Last seen, September 1981


Southern Day Frog

Taudactylus diurnus

Last seen, 1979


White-eyed River Martin

Eurychelidon serintarea

Last seen, 1978


Little Hutia

Mesocapromys minimus

Last seen, 1978
























































































































Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

2 thoughts on “Dearly Beloved

  1. Caroline – this is a beautiful and moving post

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