Elizabeth Kolbert is a New Yorker staff writer; her new book is The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: Your work on species extinction began with a report on a poisonous frog in Panama.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Yes, the Panamanian golden frog. It’s New York taxicab yellow, with very dark eyes and thin limbs and long fingers. A decade ago, a fungal disease moved through Central America attacking frogs. That fungus is now all around the world, imported everywhere by people moving amphibians around. The Panamanian golden frog is now extinct in the wild—although some have been saved in a sterile facility in Panama.
How many species right now are headed for extinction?
Amphibians have the dubious distinction of being the most threatened class of animals—40 percent are classified as threatened with extinction, and very high numbers have already gone extinct. They are probably followed by mammals: one-quarter of all mammals are classified as endangered. As many as a third of all reef-building corals are endangered. Plus one-fifth of all reptiles, and one-sixth of all birds are endangered and facing extinction. And we have statistics only on a few groups; with most species of living things we don’t even know what’s out there.
The last wave of extinctions came when an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs and their world. What’s different about the species extinction that threatens now?
Scientists say now we’re the asteroid. This extinction event is unique because it’s being caused by a living thing.
You got to go on many trips to exciting places to do your research. I loved your trip to One Tree Island on the Great Barrier Reef.
That was a wonderful experience. One Tree Island is made completely of dead coral, with some dirt on top of it. Scientists there were doing an experiment that required walking across the reef at low tide. We went out in the middle of the night. It was spectacular: the stars were so bright, and on the reef waiting for high tide were enormous loggerhead turtles, huge giant clams in amazing colors, bright blue starfish and ruddy octopuses in tide pools—the fantastic array of life that lives on a reef.
You quote Darwin saying, “Coral reefs rank high amongst the wonderful objects in the world.”
Yes, and scientists say it is likely that the reefs will be the first entire ecosystem in the modern era to become extinct.
Is that because of global warming?
It’s because we are changing the chemistry of the oceans. When we pour CO2 into the air we are in effect also pouring it into the water. And when you dissolve CO2 in water it forms an acid. We’re acidifying the oceans. As a result the corals are having a hard time.