The prospect of extinction, the complete loss of a species or other group of organisms, has long provoked strong responses. Until the turn of the 18th century, deeply held and widely shared beliefs about the order of nature led to a firm rejection of the possibility that species could entirely vanish. During the 19th century, however, resistance to the idea of extinction gave way to widespread acceptance following the discovery of the fossil remains of numerous previously unknown forms and direct experience with contemporary human-driven decline and the destruction of several species. In an effort to stem continued loss, at the turn of the 19th century, naturalists, conservationists, and sportsmen developed arguments for preventing extinction, created wildlife conservation organizations, lobbied for early protective laws and treaties, pushed for the first government-sponsored parks and refuges, and experimented with captive breeding. In the first half of the 20th century, scientists began systematically gathering more data about the problem through global inventories of endangered species and the first life-history and ecological studies of those species. The second half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries have been characterized both by accelerating threats to the world’s biota and greater attention to the problem of extinction. Powerful new laws, like the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973, have been enacted and numerous international agreements negotiated in an attempt to address the issue. Despite considerable effort, scientists remain fearful that the current rate of species loss is similar to that experienced during the five great mass extinction events identified in the fossil record, leading to declarations that the world is facing a biodiversity crisis. Responding to this crisis, often referred to as the sixth extinction, scientists have launched a new interdisciplinary, mission-oriented discipline, conservation biology, that seeks not just to understand but also to reverse biota loss. Scientists and conservationists have also developed controversial new approaches to the growing problem of extinction: rewilding, which involves establishing expansive core reserves that are connected with migratory corridors and that include populations of apex predators, and de-extinction, which uses genetic engineering techniques in a bid to resurrect lost species. Even with the development of new knowledge and new tools that seek to reverse large-scale species decline, a new and particularly imposing danger, climate change, looms on the horizon, threatening to undermine those efforts.
Mark V. Barrow
Maria Cristina Fossi and Cristina Panti
A vigorous effort to identify and study sentinel species of marine ecosystem in the world’s oceans has developed over the past 50 years. The One Health concept recognizes that the health of humans is connected to the health of animals and the environment. Species ranging from invertebrate to large marine vertebrates have acted as “sentinels” of the exposure to environmental stressors and health impacts on the environment that may also affect human health. Sentinel species can signal warnings, at different levels, about the potential impacts on a specific ecosystem. These warnings can help manage the abiotic and anthropogenic stressors (e.g., climate change, chemical and microbial pollutants, marine litter) affecting ecosystems, biota, and human health. The effects of exposure to multiple stressors, including pollutants, in the marine environment may be seen at multiple trophic levels of the ecosystem. Attention has focused on the large marine vertebrates, for several reasons. In the past, the use of large marine vertebrates in monitoring and assessing the marine ecosystem has been criticized. The fact that these species are pelagic and highly mobile has led to the suggestion that they are not useful indicators or sentinel species. In recent years, however, an alternative view has emerged: when we have a sufficient understanding of differences in species distribution and behavior in space and time, these species can be extremely valuable sentinels of environmental quality. Knowledge of the status of large vertebrate populations is crucial for understanding the health of the ecosystem and instigating mitigation measures for the conservation of large vertebrates. For example, it is well known that the various cetacean species exhibit different home ranges and occupy different habitats. This knowledge can be used in “hot spot” areas, such as the Mediterranean Basin, where different species can serve as sentinels of marine environmental quality. Organisms that have relatively long life spans (such as cetaceans) allow for the study of chronic diseases, including reproductive alterations, abnormalities in growth and development, and cancer. As apex predators, marine mammals feed at or near the top of the food chain. As the result of biomagnification, the levels of anthropogenic contaminants found in the tissues of top predators and long-living species are typically high. Finally, the application of consistent examination procedures and biochemical, immunological, and microbiological techniques, combined with pathological examination and behavioral analysis, has led to the development of health assessment methods at the individual and population levels in wild marine mammals. With these tools in hand, investigators have begun to explore and understand the relationships between exposures to environmental stressors and a range of disease end points in sentinel species (ranging from invertebrates to marine mammals) as an indicator of ecosystem health and a harbinger of human health and well-being.