Is the loss of a unique life form on Earth big news? Not according to most media outlets. But how can the public care about global mass extinction if they aren’t even told about its victims?
In September, staff with the Atlanta Botanical Garden found a frog dead in his enclosure. The frog had big brown eyes, massive feet with thick webs between the toes, and brownish skin speckled with little yellow dots. His name was Toughie. He was big for a frog and he didn’t like it when humans handled him. He’d lived a long time: 12 years.
And he was the last of his kind.
On 26 September 2016, the world very likely lost Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog (Ecnomiohyla rabborum) to extinction. The species, only discovered by scientists in 2005, lived in Panama before it was wiped out in the wild by habitat destruction and the amphibian disease, chytridiomycosis. The last one was heard calling in the wild in 2007. But before this, a small number of Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog had been taken into zoological facilities for captive breeding. Unfortunately, the attempt failed. Toughie was the last to die.
Despite the fact that we can actually trace the extinction of Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog to an exact date, it occurred with very little media interest. Sure, the species’ demise was covered by many standard science media sites, such as Scientific American, National Geographic, and Mongabay.
But the list of what media outlets thought the story not interesting enough is perhaps more notable, including the BBC, the Sun, the Guardian, and CNN.
Many news sites simply reprinted the Associated Press’s story, which spilled 264 words on the extinction of Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog (in contrast, the AP wrote three times as many words, 798, on Taylor Swift’s concert at Formula One). The New York Times at first only carried the AP article, though it later published a beautiful op-ed by one of the researchers.
Still, if you waited a little while to see if news coverage would pick up as the story trickled out – it didn’t.
A week after the extinction, at a presentation to a local herpetological society, ie devoted to amphibians and reptiles. When a presenter brought up the recent demise of Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog, there were audible gasps in the room. Even herp lovers hadn’t heard of it.
This begs the question: how could the public care about global mass extinction if they aren’t even told about its victims? How can we care if we don’t grieve?
Scientists have repeatedly warned that if we don’t change our ways we could see a mass extinction event with potentially hundreds of thousands, even millions, of species wiped out by human actions.
The impact – and scale – is impossible to imagine. The last time the Earth suffered such a mass extinction event was when an asteroid slammed into it, killing off all the non-avian dinosaurs. We didn’t show up for another 64m years.
Despite this, most media outlets chose to ignore a story that could not only inform readers of the loss of one distinct species, but also connect them to a global crisis that rarely makes its way on to the front page – or any page for that matter.
We don’t know why so many outlets ignored the story – but it may be because the species that went extinct was a frog and not a big mammal like the baiji (which also didn’t get the coverage it deserved when it vanished, but got plenty more than Toughie’s species).
Still, Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog was truly amazing. Living in the canopies of Panama’s cloud forests, this species glided through the air via the webbing connecting it toes. Scientists also believe that it was the only frog species to feed its tadpoles by allowing them to nibble at the skin of adults.
If a frog such as this is not noteworthy, what does that mean for the reptiles, fungi, plants, insects or fish that vanish? What does that say about any species that doesn’t grip the public’s imagination – are they somehow lesser for not having evolved (or vice versa) to be easily loved by us?
Amphibians are the canary in the coalmine for our current biodiversity crisis. Having been around for 370m years, amphibians make dinosaurs look babyish. But experts believe we may have lost more than 150 species in the last few decades alone, many of them to chytridiomycosis. On top of this amphibian plague, amphibians are being hard hit by deforestation, habitat loss, pollution, pesticides, the illegal wildlife trade for pets and even consumption and yes, of course, climate change (which may be exacerbating the stunning death tolls of chytridiomycosis).
Unfortunately, Toughie will not be the last frog to vanish or the last species. How many more will depend on us. But it’s hard to imagine anything changing when a story like Toughie’s is so easily swept aside. We can’t care about what we don’t know.