The Yangtze River dolphin, or baiji, is extinct, or as good as extinct with so few individuals left that the population has no hope of recovering, scientists say, according to numerous published reports today.
The dolphin, which could grow to eight feet in length and weigh 500 pounds, is the first large vertebrate species to go extinct in a half century, and the first whale or dolphin to be driven to extinction by humans, experts said.
Dolphins are celebrated for their human-like intelligence and affability. They are put on display, and taught to do tricks to delight children. That makes the loss of this species particularly poignant -- but it should highlight the larger problem of extinction. By some estimates, dozens of species are going extinct every day. Some scientists believe we are in the midst of a sixth great extinction -- the first five having killed, in their time, as many as 95% of all species, as ecosystems collapsed in a grim cascade.
Life is resilient, and the evolutionary process primes species to fill niches created by the extinctions of neighbors. But it's hard to predict when the loss of a species will lead to the collapse of an ecosystem, and it's wise to remember that ultimately, there is a single, interconnected ecosystem that governs life across the whole planet.
Further, the loss of a species has implications for science, medicine and ethics -- scientists don't have the chance to learn all they can from a living species; medicine loses the chance to exploit unique compounds created by life's diverse array of creatures; and we, as humans who by virtue of our population size, big brains or God-given right (depending on your point of view) have some dominion over the other creatures of the earth, feel a sense of loss at the shirking of that responsibility.
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