No Turning Back: The Life and Death of Animal Species

No Turning Back: The Life and Death of Animal Species

by Richard Ellis

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Nearly every species that has lived on earth is extinct. The last of thedinosaurs was wiped out after a Mount Everest-sized meteorite slammedinto the earth 65 million years ago. The great flying and marine reptiles areno more. Before humans crossed the Bering Land Bridge some 15,000 yearsago, North America was populated by mastodons, mammoths, saber-toothedtigers,


Nearly every species that has lived on earth is extinct. The last of thedinosaurs was wiped out after a Mount Everest-sized meteorite slammedinto the earth 65 million years ago. The great flying and marine reptiles areno more. Before humans crossed the Bering Land Bridge some 15,000 yearsago, North America was populated by mastodons, mammoths, saber-toothedtigers, and cave bears. They too are MIA. The passenger pigeon, once themost numerous bird in North America, is gone forever.

In No Turning Back, renowned naturalist Richard Ellis explores the lifeand death of animal species, immortalizing creatures that were driven toextinction thousands of years ago and those more recently. He documentsthose that were brought back from the brink, and most surprisingly, he revealsanimals not known to exist until the twentieth century — an antidoteto extinction.

Editorial Reviews

“Informative, accessible, and just plain fascinating.”
Publishers Weekly
In his latest book, multitalented marine naturalist Ellis (Imagining Atlantis; The Empty Ocean) broadens his attention from life in the oceans to an examination of the process of animal extinction. Readers will be tantalized by brief descriptions of many odd species some extinct, many endangered. They will learn about the 50-foot-long megatooth shark; the 10-foot-tall duck known as Bullockornis, or "the demon duck of doom"; and the tiny leaf deer of southeast Asia, so named "because it was small enough to wrap its body in a single large leaf." Ellis condenses a century of research and postulation into one comprehensive volume of extinction; additionally, he discusses recently discovered species ("The Anti-Extinctions") and offers future extinction-prevention techniques ("Rescuing Animals from Oblivion"). Even with much compelling material, however, the book is not wholly successful. Although Ellis presents some fascinating theories (among them, he casts doubt on Christianity's placement of "humans confidently perched on the top rung" of the animal ladder), the text as a whole fails to develop a focused message, and lacks the intrigue necessary to sustain reader interest throughout. While certainly a home run on information, this volume proves only a single on entertainment. 70 line drawings. Agent, Carl Brandt. (Aug.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Noted marine biologist and artist Ellis (Encyclopedia of the Sea) surveys the various causes of extinction of both land and aquatic animals, from disease, climate change, and excessive hunting to evolutionary changes and the impact of large asteroids. The first third of the book summarizes mass-extinction events through geological time, while the remainder deals with individual species that have faced extinction over the last 1000 years. Ellis also includes surprising discoveries of animals previously thought to be eliminated and others whose populations have revived thanks (and no thanks) to human intervention. Readers will find useful the one- to five-page accounts of the more famous extinctions and near-extinctions, including those of the California condor, dodo, giant panda, North American bison, and others. Most accounts contain brief excerpts from popular and scientific sources, which Ellis appears to have read exhaustively. Highly recommended for public and academic natural history collections.-Alvin Hutchinson, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, DC Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A terrible and elegant portrait gallery of lost animal souls, including those about to take the off-ramp to extinction and a few brought back from the edge. Extinction is as old as time, notes naturalist Ellis (Aquagenesis, 2001, etc.) with his typically smooth, cautious, and illuminating delivery; not all of it can be explained as the work of "Homo destructivus," though much can be laid at our doorstep, particularly when it comes to recent extinctions. But ancient modes of extinction are far less certain, and the confusion about what might have caused them is exacerbated by the complexity and imprecision of extinction theory. (For instance, what exactly is a species, the most typical taxa used to measure extinction?) Ellis provides an exemplary overview of the debates over extinction's causes-over-kill, over-chill, over-ill (also known as hyper-disease pathogen)-discovering often enough that the same problems that plagued earlier thinkers continue to dog those at work today. He covers the great macroextinctions, but perhaps microextinctions like those of the aurochs to the dusky sea sparrow are more digestible, occurring at a scale that readers can grasp. Accompanied by Ellis's fine-line drawings, the text introduces us to creatures on the brink (rhinos, tigers, saiga, chiru, bilby), those that have staged a comeback (the whooping crane, Spix's macaw), and those that have appeared out of the mists, though believed to be extinct (the coelacanth, the indigo-winged parrot). Of great interest here is the author's discussion on the role of pathogenic, epizootic diseases like emergent viruses (think Ebola, AIDS, Marburg) that could have been as catastrophic as any giant meteor. "Extinction ispart of the evolutionary process (or perhaps evolution is part of the extinction process)," writes Ellis, who takes the necessary next step by identifying the victims and rounding up some of the perps. (70 line drawings)Agency: Brandt & Hochman

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

No Turning Back
The Life and Death of Animal Species

Extinction (Sort of) Explained

Standard textbooks on evolutionary biology and paleontology hardly mention extinction. Much is said about the origin of species and the evolution of species once they are formed, but discussions of extinction are usually limited to casual references and the enigma of the great mass extinctions. On causes of extinction we are apt to read, "Species become extinct when population sizes drop to zero," or "Species die out if they are unable to adapt to changing conditions." These statements are true, of course, but are virtually devoid of content.

-- David Raup, 1991

Everybody knows what extinction is. The dictionary defines it as "the act of extinguishing, or, the fact of becoming extinguished or extinct." (Extinguish is in turn defined as "to put out a fire, a light, or to bring an end to.") More to our point, Thain and Hickman's Penguin Dictionary of Biology (1996) defines extinction as "Termination of a genealogical lineage. Used most frequently in the context of a species, but applicable also to populations and to taxa higher than species." Thus the fundamental precept of extinction is self-evident: a species (or population, genus, or family) is extinct when its last member has died.

Yet extinction theory is greatly complicated by a number of factors, among them the inability of biologists and paleontologists to agree on exactly what a species is. "Alarmingly," noted Purvis, Jones, and Mace (2000), "there are over 20 species concepts now in common use." For living animals, we recognize as separate species those that are morphologically similar but cannot interbreed. The same criterion obviously cannot be applied to fossils, so paleontologists have to make use of anatomical differences and similarities -- when there is enough fossil material to make a determination.

In recent times, however, with the introduction of DNA analysis, what was long believed to be a single species can now be fragmented into two or more. Killer whales, the most widely distributed of all cetaceans, found from southern polar waters to the Arctic and many places in between, were once thought to be a single worldwide species -- Orcinus orca. New observations and analyses have shown that there may be an Antarctic species that is quite different from its northern counterparts in coloration and behavior; it has been provisionally named O. glacialis. Where there were once believed to be six species of balaenopterid whales (blue, fin, sei, Bryde's, and two species of minke), two more were added as of 2003 (see pp. 254–55). The two distinct species of elephant -- African and Asian -- have been subdivided into three with the recent addition of the genetically distinct Bornean elephant; there may actually be as many as six different subspecies. The gorilla may indeed be not one (Gorilla gorilla) but two closely related species. In a New Scientist article dated November 22, 2003, Bob Holmes and Jeff Hecht wrote, "A new trend is to delineate species as evolutionarily separate lineages, including separated populations that are evolving in divergent ways. This has already happened for albatrosses. There are 13 recognized species, but the IUCN* lists 21 threatened lineages." On the other hand, it has recently been shown that the animal known as the red wolf, which was once awarded the species name of Canis rufus, is not a separate species at all, but a hybrid of the gray wolf and the coyote.

Even if we are able to plug in an acceptable definition of a species, however, identifying the moment that it became extinct is much more problematic. For example, rumored sightings of such animals as the ivorybilled woodpecker and the Tasmanian tiger continue to circulate, and while these animals are generally considered extinct, it is impossible to state unequivocally that a few stragglers may not be found in their often inaccessible habitats. The 1938 discovery of the coelacanth, thought to have been extinct for 75 million years, is the paradigmatic case of a rediscovered "lost" animal, and the unexpected appearance of the previously unknown megamouth shark in Hawaiian waters in 1975 indicates how difficult it is to make categorical statements about existence or nonexistence. If it is so dif- ficult with modern animals, imagine how hard it is to decide from fossil evidence alone that a particular species became extinct at a particular moment. There are no more trilobites, pterosaurs, or ichthyosaurs, but when did the last one die?

Extinction is one of the most powerful forces on earth, and one of the most enigmatic. It affects every species that has ever lived, and has eliminated most of them. In time, it will eliminate us too. Despite its tremendous importance, however, nobody is quite sure what it is or how it works. We know that there have been countless numbers of living things that have walked, run, crawled, flown, swam, or just remained stationary over the past 3 billion years, and that the great majority of them are gone; but beyond that, we know very little. The fossil record not only supports the all-encompassing theory of evolution, demonstrating conclusively that life changes over time, but it is also our primary evidence for extinction. Because so many creatures are no longer viable, extinction can be clearly read in the fossil record, although the actual evidence of evolution -- "change over time" -- is only infrequently revealed.

Until the nineteenth century, almost everybody—scientists included -- accepted the traditional Christian view that the Bible was to be taken literally, and that God had made the sun, the moon, the earth, and the oceans. He also made all the mammals, birds, alligators, snakes, fishes, and insects, but his crowning achievement was "to make man in our own image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over cattle, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." Even Aristotle believed that the animals had been divinely arranged in a ladder, with humans confidently perched on the top rung, the epitome of life.

No Turning Back
The Life and Death of Animal Species
. Copyright © by Richard Ellis. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Richard Ellis is recognized as one of America's foremost writers and painters on marine natural history. Among his many books are The Book of Sharks, The Book of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises, The Search for the Giant Squid, Great White Shark, Imagining Atlantis, and The Empty Ocean. He lives in New York City.

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