May 21, 2019

The Escalator to Animal Extinction

“In 1985, John Fitzpatrick hiked up a ridge called Cerro de Pantiacolla, in the Peruvian Andes, in search of birds. On an eight-kilometer uphill walk, he and his team meticulously documented all the birds that lived on the mountainside. They found dozens of species, many with delightfully ostentatious names. The buff-browed foliage-gleaner. The hazel-fronted pygmy-tyrant. The fulvous-breasted flatbill. The variable antshrike. After their census, they returned to their base camp on the banks of the Palatoa River, and Fitzpatrick took a photo of the Andes, towering in the distance. Then they sailed away.

Thirty years later, Benjamin Freeman, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia and a former student of Fitzpatrick’s, decided to retrace the same hike to see whether the birdlife had changed in the intervening decades. “We motored up the river in a canoe, literally holding up that photo, until we said, ‘Oh, we’re here,’” Freeman says.

As they climbed, the thickets of tall bamboo by the river gave way to big rainforest trees with huge buttress roots. And at the top of the ridge, 1,400 meters up, the team found a “gnarled, mossy wonderland of stunted trees,” Freeman says. What they did not find, however, was the buff-browed foliage-gleaner, the hazel-fronted pygmy-tyrant, the fulvous-breasted flatbill, or the variable antshrike. They had all disappeared.”

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