Six Extinctions Under: A Mammoth Problem


When you hear the term “sixth mass extinction,” what images come to mind? Elephants and lions being hunted down for the traditional medicine market? Sea turtle eggs being poached from the beaches of Costa Rica? Overfishing and reef destruction? The rainforest? With all of the recent and developing news concerning loss of ecosystems and species, and a widely-reported new study in Science Advances, the sixth mass extinction is increasingly penetrating the public consciousness.

Despite appearances, the sixth mass extinction is not a recent occurrence. Many years ago—60,000, or thereabouts—humanity first ventured away from its cradle in eastern Africa. The sixth mass extinction “officially” started at about 12,000 year ago at the end of the last glaciation, but there were pulses of it much earlier than that in certain parts of the world.

Most mass extinctions previous to this one (such as that of the dinosaurs) occurred because of natural catastrophes, including climate change, geological disasters, meteor impacts, and perhaps even others we haven’t identified. The sixth mass extinction may or may not have been the product of natural forces in the past, but it is increasingly a human problem in the present. In order to avert an endlessly recurring tragedy, then, humanity must learn from this often-overlooked facet of history.

Ice Age Spain was populated by lions, rhinos, and mammoths. (Painting by Mauricio Antón)

Not long ago (at least on the Earth’s timescale), our world was host to incredible beasts of magnificent proportions. Giant cave lions, larger than those in present-day Africa, roamed North America and Europe amid the walls of glaciers, side-by-side with saber-tooth tigers. Eagles as big as motorcycles in New Zealand hunted gigantic, flightless moas, which themselves could stand over 12 feet tall. Cougar-sized cheetahs prowled the Midwest in America, and were probably just as fast as those —> Read More