Watch the Extinction project webinar video

My old friend Michael Mainelli at Z/Yen Research in London asked me to contribute a webinar on the Extinction project for his Financial Services Club series of free webinars. I presented the work to the Association for Historical and Fine Art Photography’s annual conference in November 2019 so I took that presentation and brought it up to date. I added material on how I started and photographed the project, the history and importance of specimen collections, conservation work at The Field Museum in Chicago and I place the work in the current pandemic context. Because it’s clear to me that the key lesson from this pandemic is: do not mess with Mother Nature! Which, in one phrase, is precisely what this project and this website are about.

I had been thinking for a while about doing a podcast or online video of me talking about the project so that I have a definitive statement about the work online. This works really well like that and the questions afterwards from the audience add another level of information.

3:49 – start of my talking head after an introduction from Michael and an audience quiz on the current extinction rate

20:25 – audience questions for about 20 minutes

EverydayExtinction – contributing to the Instagram feed

I was contacted recently by the photographer and National Geographic contributor Sean Gallagher, and @sean_gallagher_photo, as he was gathering a group of photographers and conservationists to contribute to a new Everyday project on Instagram, EverydayExtinction. Previous Everyday Instagram feeds are @everydayafrica and @everydayclimatechange. It’s great to have @ExtinctionPhoto as part of the project. My work is different at its source. Everything had to be shot indoors and most of the contributors are posting work from the field. I want to juxtapose my images of endangered species and stories with images of species in the wild from the other EverydayExtinction photographers. Images of anything but recently extinct species will be one of my more important contributions to the feed. We were recently featured in the Washington Post. I also want to highlight the stories of non-charismatic species, such as Florida Perforate Reindeer Lichen



Cassini and the blue dot

Approaching its final orbit around Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft has been sending back extraordinary images. Looking through the Jet Propulsion Laboratory website I was reminded of an image made on 23 July 2013. It’s a rare photo of our planet: Cassini was able to make the image because the Sun had temporarily moved behind Saturn from the spacecraft’s point of view and most of the light was blocked, preventing the camera from damage caused by the Sun’s direct rays. It makes me feel exactly as I did when I started shooting Extinction. This is it – a blue dot in space is all we have, we are now stewards of life on Earth and we need to face that responsibility as we hurtle through an age in which man dominates all other species. As John Bates, a birds curator at The Field Museum, says, ‘Extinction is forever. Yet at the same time it’s critical for people to recognise that there are things we can do about this. It just takes the recognition that there is a problem.’


The evolution of conservation

On a recent visit to the Powell-Cotton Museum (recommended by my friend Quintin Wright) at Quex Park, Birchington, East Kent, UK, I was struck by the evolution of conservation thinking and how different that is now than 150 years ago. The museum was established in 1896 by Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton (1866-1940) to house natural history specimens and cultural objects collected on expeditions to Asia and Africa.

The evolution of conservation began in the mid to late 1800’s as collectors mounted expeditions to literally everywhere around the globe, supplying specimens to feed ‘collection fever’ as academic institutions and museums acquired them for education and research. Collections were intended to educate the public and create awareness at a time when taxidermy and museum exhibits were extremely popular in presenting the new and unknown. However, as collecting became big business and expeditions were dispatched around the globe to return with huge quantities of specimens, the evolution of conservation efforts began with serious discussion of biodiversity loss, species extinction and mankind’s relationship to the natural world – issues commonly believed to be contemporary but, in fact, have been grappled with for over a century.


Southern White Rhinoceros mammal Ceratotherium simum simum - Extinction

Southern White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum simum), FMNH no. 125413. Conservation status: near threatened

Powell-Cotton discovered 52 new species and some of them, such as a subspecies of Southern white rhinoceros (named at the time Ceratotherium simum cottoni), are named after him. ‘One day,’ he said, ‘when it is too late, it will be found that a species belonging to some special district has been extinguished and it will then be realised that the only specimens extant are in some museum…’. Powell-Cotton collected for 40 years in Africa and Asia in the early 20th century as the concept of conservation was beginning to evolve, with the belief that if wildlife was going to become extinct, a complete record needed to exist in the form of museum specimens. He hunted selectively and only for science, believing that  unethical hunting was wasteful. We tend to view the golden age of collecting and the evolution of conservation thinking differently now but historical collections are extremely important to today’s conservation efforts and research.

Plastics pollution and 500 million drinking straws

500,000,000 – that is the daily consumption of one-use plastic drinking straws in the United States. I read this last week and it still seems unbelievable – daily consumption, half a billion! There is a lot of recent media discussion on plastics pollution in the world’s oceans, including micro-particle contamination of the ocean floor and its effects on marine invertebrates, including coral and plankton.

pollution coral

Corals on the shelves of the Invertebrates Collection, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

Recycling in the developed world is a huge step forward. However, a huge amount of the plastics pollution we see originates in the developing world. Recycling in the developing world cannot keep up with consumption, as I was reminded yesterday by one of my photography students, Anja Riedmann. Most straws are made from polypropylene, a petroleum product. Increasing demand for disposable food containers means even more use of petroleum products to transport raw materials to plastics manufacturers and… where does that end? More plastics pollution. What’s more useless than one more disposable plastic straw? And what happened to the paper ones that were around when I was a kid? Straws suck – ban, please.

Gypsy Moth invasive species control in the United States

This is the time of year for robust Gypsy moth control progammes in the eastern and north central United States. The Chicago Tribune reports that ‘two treatments are used to eradicate the moths: biodegradable plastic flakes laced with pheromones that confuse male moths and disrupt mating and BtK, an organic bacterial spray that targets caterpillars and is harmless to humans and their pets. In Illinois, treatments are dropped from a helicopter.’

The range of the Gypsy moth spreads throughout North America, Europe and Africa. An invasive species in the eastern United States, it is one of the most destructive pests of hardwood trees and forests. Its larvae voraciously consume the leaves of over 500 species of trees and plants and, in 2015 alone, the species contributed to the defoliation of over 60,000 hectares in Massachusetts.

Gypsy moth insect Lymantria dispar - Extinction

Gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar), FMNH 712879

There are several natural and introduced predators that keep Gypsy moth numbers somewhat in check: the white-footed mouse, which consumes larvae nesting near the ground, certain species of insect-eating birds and a species of imported Japanese fungi (Entomophaga maimaiga). Introduction of the parasitic tachinid fly (Compsilura concinnata) in 1906, specifically to control the Gypsy moth in the US, resulted in the near extinction of many other moth species.

Parasitoid Tachinid Fly insect Lymantria dispar - Extinction

Parasitoid Tachinid Fly (Compsilura concinnata), FMNH no. 852212

Over the past 20 years, swathes of forest in the United States have been sprayed with pesticides in an attempt to control the seemingly relentless advance of the gypsy moth. This obviously has its own environmental implications but as research to control the species over the last 100 years has yielded very few results and the moth continues to wreak havoc on the forests of the US, there seems to be no other option at present.

Find out more at Gypsy Moth – Lymantria dispar

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