Research from the University of Oxford has highlighted the phenomenon of societal extinction and its potential impact on efforts to conserve biodiversity. When species disappear from society’s collective memory, they cease to be important or to receive attention from the public. Species can disappear from our societies, cultures and discourses at the same time as, or even before, they become biologically extinct.
According to a quote attributed to both Banksy and Irvin Yalom, “Species go extinct twice – one time when the last individual stops breathing, and a second time when the collective memory about the species disappears.”
The international and interdisciplinary group of scientists found that whether a species will become societally extinct depends on many factors. These can include its charisma, its symbolic or cultural value, whether and how long ago it went extinct, and how distant and isolated its range is from humans.
For example, not many people have heard of the splendid poison frog (Oophaga speciosa) that was declared extinct from its home range in Panama in 2020. Although there is a remote chance that some specimens may be in captive collections, there are none in zoos or in recognized breeding programs. And because this is not a charismatic or culturally important species, it is unlikely that public funds or interest will be generated to attempt breeding and reintroduction projects. Society does not recognize this species as important.
By contrast, when Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii), a parrot endemic to Brazil’s Amazon forest, was declared extinct in the wild in 2019, captive breeding programs were well underway. “Blu”, a Spix’s macaw who achieved worldwide fame as a character in the 2011 animated movie Rio, helped to bring an understanding of this species’ plight to the world. As a result of greater public awareness and empathy, the Brazilian federal government’s Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity, together with several partner organizations, established an Action Plan to increase the captive population of the Spix’s macaw and begin reintroducing them to the wild.
The fact that children from local communities in the former range of Spix’s macaws incorrectly believed that the species is found in Rio de Janeiro, because of its appearance in the animated movie Rio, is an example of how societal extinction works. As time passes, the knowledge and appreciation of a species is transformed and becomes inaccurate and dislocated from reality.
As more and more species go extinct, they also become isolated from people. This leads to the extinction of experience – the progressive loss of our daily interactions with nature. As time passes such species may fully fade from people’s memories and, as a result, suffer societal extinction as well.
One example presented by the researchers is the replacement of traditional herbal medicine by modern medicine in Europe. This is believed to have degraded general knowledge of many medicinal plants, causing them to become societally extinct. Another example arises from studies conducted among communities in southwestern China and Indigenous people in Bolivia, where people have shown loss of local knowledge and memory of bird species that have become extinct.
Thus, public attention and interest in the fate of endangered species is a crucial prerequisite for effective conservation programs. Societies tend to conserve species they recognize as important. But these factors can only have an impact if people were aware of the species in the first place.
“It is important to note that the majority of species actually cannot become societally extinct, simply because they never had a societal presence to begin with,” said Dr Ivan Jarić, lead author of the study and researcher at the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences.
“This is common in uncharismatic, small, cryptic, or inaccessible species, especially among invertebrates, plants, fungi and microorganisms – many of which are not yet formally described by scientists or known by humankind. Their declines and extinctions remain silent and unseen by the people and societies.”
“Societal extinctions can affect conservation efforts aimed at protecting biodiversity because they can diminish our expectations of the environment and our perceptions of its natural state, such as what is the standard or relatively healthy,” said study co-author Dr. Josh Firth.
“Societal extinction can reduce our will to pursue ambitious conservation goals. For example, it could reduce public support for rewilding efforts, especially if such species are no longer present in our memory as natural parts of the ecosystem,” added Dr Jarić.
Further research will now assess how societal extinctions can produce false perceptions of the severity of threats to biodiversity and true extinction rates, and diminish public support for conservation and restoration efforts, such as reintroductions of Eurasian beaver to the UK.
The results of the study are published today in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.