(CNN) — When photographer Mark Schlossman came across a dead, missing bird, he had what he calls a “transformational moment.”
While in the Bird Department of the Field Museum in Chicago with her two young children in 2008, she realized that the specimen drawer from which the bird had been removed was the only place anyone could see the bird species.
“It was like a punch in the stomach and thinking, ‘We’ve done a lot of damage.’ What kind of world do we want to live in? It’s enough,” said Schlossman, who lives in London.
The experience led Schlossman, who specializes in environmental and travel photography, to wonder why biodiversity loss is happening so quickly, is it too late to do something about it, and if not, what can be done? What he discovered became part of his new photography book, Extinction: Our Fragile Relationship with Life on Earth.
Pictured is the cover of Extinction: Our Fragile Relationship With Life on Earth. Credit: Mark Schlossman
Through compelling photographs of specimens captured almost 15 years after that transformative visit to the museum, The Extinction serves as both a warning and a hope, featuring extinct and endangered animals that have suffered loss due to habitat destruction. , hunting, legal and illegal wildlife trade, disease and other human-caused threats. But Schlossman pointed out that it’s not too late for some of these endangered species.
Pictured is a Carolina Museum specimen, an extinct species that was once coveted for its colorful plumage and has become extinct due to disease. Credit: Mark Schlossman
Of the 82 species that appear in the book, 23 are extinct, Schlossman explains. “The rest have been brought back from the brink of extinction as conservation successes or can be saved with strong conservation and habitat protection work.”
“We have done a lot of damage as a species. But we have to continue with what we have to do because we are at a critical moment in history.”
A detail of a Floreana giant tortoise from the Field Museum collection is shown. The species was hunted to extinction in 1850. Credit: Mark Schlossman
Schlossman’s call for action comes at a crucial time, as the accelerating loss of global biodiversity threatens the interconnectedness and future of all life forms, including humans.
Biodiversity loss means that although there are around 8.7 million species on Earth, of which 85-90% have yet to be discovered, scientists are in a race against time to understand how the declining numbers, diversity and genetic variability of species affect ecosystems, according to Thomas Gillespie, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Emory University in Atlanta.
“We’re potentially losing species faster than we’re finding them,” he said, “and before we even realize what their role is in the world’s ecosystems.”
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Schlossman’s ability to document some of these lost species dates back to the 1970s, when as a teenager he volunteered in the Field Museum’s mammal department for several summers, he said. After visiting the museum with his children, he contacted Field Museum curator John Bates to see what he could do as a photographer to tell the stories of certain specimens in the museum’s collection and see how far he could go.
Over the next decade, he photographed his way through specimens of birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, mammals, insects and plants. “In each natural history museum, on average, 1% of the collection is on display. They gave me access to the 99% that cannot be seen. … Every collection manager had to agree to it, so it took me a while to get it,” Schlossman said. “I have this connection with the Field Museum, and the culture of the Field Museum is very progressive.”
The ethos underlying Schlossman’s curation is that all species are important, especially the pollinators involved in the process of bringing food to our tables, but even the “non-charismatic” species, he said.
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The bumblebee Bombus affinis, known as the rust spot, featured in “Disappearance,” is one of those crucial pollinators. Once thriving in the United States and Canada, it is experiencing the most severe decline of any bee species in North America. Scientists estimate that this critically endangered species has disappeared from 87% of its natural range, and the population has declined by 95% in recent decades, the book notes.
This critically endangered specimen of the Bombus affinis bumblebee is from the Field Museum collection. Credit: Mark Schlossman
Among some of the extinct species photographed by Schlossman, only one remains, a tiny Mexican ray, whose inclusion reflects the book’s most heartbreaking message.
“It was on a tributary that ran through Mexico City and because of urban development it was under too much pressure,” explains Schlossman.
Urbanization, the concentration of human beings in areas converted for residential, commercial, industrial and transportation purposes, also caused the extinction of the Xerces blue butterfly, which was last seen in the wild in 1941. It was the first butterfly to become extinct in North America due to human action.
The last known thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, died in captivity in 1936. This specimen is in the collection of the Field Museum. Credit: Mark Schlossman
As Schlossman works on his book, themes or patterns of human behavior emerge. “Why do we have to hunt these things to extinction? What happens to our species if we don’t manage our resource use sustainably?
“We are poisoning ourselves by acting recklessly in this way of overexploiting natural resources,” Schlossman said. “It’s very important that people understand that. I don’t know how we think we’re going to dodge this bullet we’re creating for ourselves.”
The Chinese pangolin (a specimen in the Field Museum collection) is critically endangered because it is hunted by humans for its scales, meat, and blood. Credit: Mark Schlossman
a ray of hope
Schlossman hopes his images inspire ideas and optimism for the conservation of other species. “Human activities can nurture as well as harm,” says Jeremy Kerr, professor and chair of the department of biology at the University of Ottawa, Ontario.
One example is the success of the California Condor Recovery Program, which Schlossman included in Extinction as an example of how human intervention has saved a species. The initiative, which began in 1975, is the result of a collaborative effort led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, involving a number of federal and state agencies and non-governmental organizations.
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“The population was down to 22 and they captured them all and started this captive breeding program. And they encourage the birds to lay two eggs a year to increase the population quickly,” explains Schlossmann.
“The chicks from the eggs in the incubator were manipulated and raised with condor dolls so they wouldn’t leave a mark with humans. It’s basically, if a condor chick sees a human face, it thinks it’s its mother,” he added. “[Así que] they used condor dolls to raise them. … By 2020, there were more than 500 condors.”
New Zealand’s kākāpos (objects in the Field Museum’s collection) have been preserved thanks to a government-backed relocation and restoration program, according to Extinction. Credit: Mark Schlossman
Stand up and fight harder
Deforestation to produce beef, soybeans (produced in large quantities for livestock) and palm oil harms the biodiversity of rainforests and coral reefs, Emory’s Gillespie said. Much of the burden of biodiversity loss falls on large industries and companies, such as agriculture, Schlossman said, but everyone can do something to help, such as making dietary changes to reduce demand for products from these systems.
As habitat conservation is the most important antidote to biodiversity loss, the habitats of species such as the monarch butterfly, declared endangered in July by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, can be promoted by growing milkweed, one of their main sources of food, Schlossman explained.
Pictured are monarch butterfly specimens from the Field Museum collection. Credit: Mark Schlossman
For bee species, you can reduce pesticide use or plant a variety of flowers and shrubs in your yard to prevent habitat loss and provide bees with shelter from extreme elements.
If you feel powerless or overwhelmed by these environmental issues, know that it’s not too late to start making changes to build a better future, according to Schlossman. “Everything that happened yesterday or the previous days no longer exists,” he said. “Eco-concern doesn’t make things better; we just have to get up and fight harder.”
“Extinction” is now available in the UK and US.
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