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Extinction of species needs attention

A fisherman off the coast of Japan recently caught a frill shark, a rare sea creature that has been around in the fossil record for 50 million years. It is so prehistoric that scientists refer to it as a "living fossil."

Upon capture, the female shark was placed in an aquarium for observation and study. The shark promptly died after being held in captivity.

This news story serves to illustrate several disturbing trends in the realm of species and ecosystem management.

First, it demonstrates how popular animals can be with the general public, especially members of odd or rare species. A video of the shark swimming around its tank was placed on YouTube, and this week was listed as the number six Most Viewed and Top Favorite science and technology video.

The video is pretty basic, but the eel-like creature with 300 razor-sharp teeth and frilled gill slits has drawn quite the following. Viewer comments posted online lament not being able to see the shark before it died.

The fact that this shark died almost immediately upon being placed in captivity shows rather poor judgment on the scientists' part. Next to nothing is known about the frill shark, which, according to CBS, was outside its territory when found in shallow waters.

Experts are now saying the shark was probably sick before capture, but CBS also notes that the frill shark occasionally surfaces above its normal depths of 400-4,200 feet in cold weather to search for food in warmer waters. If that was the case, it's an awfully big coincidence that the shark died as soon as it was taken from its native habitat.

While it seems like this is an isolated incident, when looking at the bigger picture it becomes clear that many of the species on the growing list of endangered or extinct flora and fauna are suffering the same fate of the frill shark — human interference and displacement from natural habitats.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) is the leading organization that evaluates the conservation status of the world's species of plants and animals. Every four years, the IUCN releases a report that summarizes extinction trends and all pertinent information relating to conservation biology. The organization's information is the basis for many conservation nonprofits efforts, including the much-respected World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The IUCN released its last report in 2004, and the report noted a rather alarming trend. According to the organization, "Recent extinction rates far exceed the rates of extinction in the fossil record. Extinction rates based on known extinctions of birds, mammals and amphibians over the past 100 years indicates that current extinction rates are 50 to 500 times higher than rates in the fossil record. If possibly extinct species are included, this increases to 100 to 1,000 times natural (background) extinction rates."

This basically means that as of 2004, 15,589 of the world's species are threatened with extinction.

Extinction in and of itself is a natural process, as the planet has already experienced five major extinction events. It can even be considered Darwinian as the fittest species ultimately survive by exploiting a niche. The problem, however, lies within the fact that the rate of extinction is also increasing way too rapidly — and this is likely caused by human activity.

The reasons for supporting species conservation are many. For some, the contribution many rainforest plants have made to modern medicine is reason enough. Others may care about saving endangered species because many plants and animals serve as environment warning indicators as well as air purifiers and waste decomposers.

As for me, I care about these plants and animals because they are part of the life community. Once gone, a species cannot be reclaimed. I can't imagine a world without some of our most intelligent (and currently endangered) mammals, including some species of whales and dolphins, all the great apes, elephants and giant pandas. The human intelligence we consider superior to that of the rest of the animal kingdom should not be used to conquer the earth like its our alone, but rather to preserve its wonder.

Or, as the 1973 Endangered Species Act puts it, these plants and animals "are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational and scientific value to the Nation and its people."

In the face of more prominent global problems like the HIV epidemic sweeping across Africa, the war in Iraq and the genocide in Darfur, it is easy to forget the plight of endangered species, but the frill shark's fleeting popularity is a sign that we still care about the sanctity of all life. With an estimate of one species going extinct every 20 minutes, this is an issue that cannot afford to wait on the back burner much longer.

To learn more about endangered species and what you can do to help, please visit these Web sites: www.worldwildlife.org,

www.iucnredlist.org,

www.fws.gov/endangered/

Reach columnist Amy Korst at opinion@thedaily.washington.edu.

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