Credit: Lucy Dunn

Hunterian extinction: the fall of the animal kingdom

By Patrick Gaffey

Patrick Gaffey outlines the real danger posed by climate change to so many species following a trip to the Hunterian Museum.

It’s no secret that the climate emergency places the natural world in a dire situation. A recent study found that it has put one third of all plant and animal life at risk of extinction in the next fifty years. With a view to understanding this stark prediction and to know what species are most at risk, I headed to the Hunterian Zoology Museum.

The museum, located in the Graham Kerr building, is known both to visitors and students, who use it as a unique study location. It’s open from 9-5pm on weekdays, when an amazing array of animals from across the globe can be viewed. Mike Rutherford, the curator, showed me their new COP26-inspired project, where undergraduate zoology students have put notices on the displays of particular animals, discussing how they are affected by the climate situation. So many are impacted; he told me that virtually every animal on display was likely to have one.

Rutherford is particularly concerned about sea turtles, a beautiful collection of which can be seen at the museum. These animals come on land to lay their eggs, the sex of which is determined by the climate of the area. Male sea turtles can only hatch on land at 29°C or lower, which is becoming increasingly rare in their natural habitats. One study predicted that, based on current climate change models, the conditions needed for males to hatch will become near-impossible in the next century, meaning the species will be unable to reproduce. However, these animals live for a very long time, and Rutherford fears humanity will continue to watch older populations and be “lulled into a false sense of thinking everything’s all right,” until they suddenly die out.

One of the museum’s most fascinating and unique animals is a fellow reptile: the tuatara. The last survivors of an order that developed 250 million years ago, they were once somewhat widespread, but are now only found on certain islands in New Zealand. They have a third eye, which is believed to be able to recognise the time of year based on sunlight patterns, and can still reproduce when aged over 100. But, disastrously, climate change places them in danger, as they find themselves unable to cope with rising sea levels. However, Rutherford points out that they are not best understood as a species threatened by climate change, as their number has actually increased in recent years due to recovery efforts. In reality, “the tuatara’s main problem has always been invasive species such as rats and dogs”.

Not all animals in the museum face negative effects. Hammerhead sharks seem to thrive in higher temperatures, although some of their cousins are struggling to survive. Xenarthrans like the sloth are protected by an ability to relocate en masse to appropriate climates. The Eurasian nuthatch, once a birdwatchers’ favourite in southern Scotland, is likewise moving northwards, and can now be seen in Glasgow. Their ascension seems to be a viable strategy for now, but what will they do if northern areas become uninhabitable too?

The scientists who work with these endangered animals are often consumed by an understandable sense of futility, and it is not uncommon for them to leave the profession in frustration. One project to conserve and recover the Hawaiian honeycreeper ended in disaster when the entire population was killed by malaria. The disease was previously unknown in Hawaii, but has arrived in its rainforests due to rising temperatures. Christa Seidl, who played a leading role in the project, said in a recent interview: “For me, the only response is to just keep moving forward.” And move forward humanity must, as we try to reverse the damage already done and protect the next generations of natural life.


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