Will You Miss the Animals You Never Knew?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | April 20th, 2011 | 10 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living

Polar bear

About four years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey released a projection report stating that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears would be gone by 2050. Their numbers would plummet, stated the report, due to shrinking summer sea ice caused by greenhouse gases. Since that time, images of polar bears have graced water bottles, T-shirts and tote bags. It’s now widely accepted that Ursus maritimus is the poster child for climate change.

We also know of other species in great peril — mostly because of media attention to them. According to the Chinese zodiac, 2010 was the Year of the Tiger, and last November the International Tiger Forum was held in St. Petersburg in the Russian Federation. As the world’s first global summit focused on saving a single species from extinction, the event received widespread news coverage.

Because their likenesses appear on TV screens and spearhead conservation campaigns, chances are that even if you don’t live in tiger or polar bear habitats — where it would at least be possible for you to run into them during your daily life — you would miss them if they disappeared from our planet. But will you mourn the extinction of other species living today if you’ve never heard of them?

The ones you know


The 2010 International Tiger Forum was the world’s first global summit focused on saving a single species from extinction. ©John T. Andrews

Fewer than 2,500 mature, wild giant pandas are left on Earth today. They live in central China in bamboo thickets and in coniferous forests in the high mountains. In 1961, the World Wildlife Fund® made this animal its symbol. Today, the trademark black-and-white bear with the “WWF” text is probably the most recognized universal logo for the conservation movement itself.

And if you grew up anytime before the 1980s, chances are that frogs played some part in your childhood. We heard them croak down by the rivers, saw them jump away from us on our explorations of neighboring woods, and recognized the “ribbit” that emanated from the longer grass in our lawns. Perhaps you and your elementary school classmates even kept one in a classroom terrarium. But something strange started happening three decades ago. They began to disappear all over the world.

No one knows exactly why.

The ones you don’t

But just as surely as we are losing our frogs and pandas, we’re losing our vaquitas, a small porpoise endemic to Mexico’s Gulf of California. Vaquitas are the world’s tiniest and most endangered small marine cetacean. There are only about 245 individuals left in the world. Every year, 40 to 80 of these porpoises are killed in trawl and gill nets used in both hobby and commercial fishing. Added to that threat is habitat degradation caused by the damming of the Colorado River. Today, vaquitas face almost imminent extinction.


More than 300,000 dolphins, porpoises and whales are killed annually after getting tangled in fishing gear. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Habitat loss is also contributing to the demise of the bonobo, a chimpanzee-like ape found only in the Congo Basin rainforests of the central Democratic Republic of Congo. Their numbers are also taking a hit because of bush-meat hunters. Some say we’ll soon lose the last individuals of a species that could be our closest relatives. Bonobos exhibit remarkably different social behavior than chimpanzees. Unlike the combative chimps, the bonobos’ social interactions emphasize peacemaking, a trait in the animal kingdom that is rare, and one we could all learn much from.

If tomorrow you were to find out that the world’s vaquitas and bonobos were gone, would you feel their loss as much as you would the disappearance of polar bears, giant pandas or frogs? Can you miss a species you never knew about? After all, how much do you really miss the dodo bird or the passenger pigeon?

Traveling the trails,


Feature photo: Two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could be gone by 2050. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


  1. Yes, I would feel the disappearance deeply. I know this from experience. In 1967 when I was a teenager, Natural History magazine excerpted a book entitled The Snouters, about a mammal order that had evolved in a novel way to use the nose for a variety of functions. I read the article and was captivated by these creatures! However, at the end of the piece was a note that the atoll where they had existed and evolved in isolation had been obliterated by an errant nuclear bomb blast. I was HEARTBROKEN. I bawled and bawled until my mother helpfully pointed out that the whole thing was written as a tall tale and was all fictitious. But when I believed the animals to have been real, I was devastated by their loss and would be so today.

    Joan Campbell | April 26th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  2. The overall biodiversity of an ecosystem can be taken as an indication of its health. Because of that, I think it’s fair to say that we do miss species we never knew existed, even if we don’t know that we miss them. The effects of those losses are invisible to us until the point of catastrophe is reached.

    NineQuietLessons | April 27th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  3. The answer to the question, do I miss seeing the passenger pigeon even though I have never seen one, yes I do. The next question could be, do I miss the T Rex? No I don’t. But in the case of the T Rex humans had nothing to do with their extinction. But in the case of the passenger pigeon humans did. We humans are guilty of are share of serious damage and even the extinction of certain species, thru greed, pollution and destruction of natural habitat. Maybe the next question asked should be, are humans going to be missed after they pollute themselves into extinction? Maybe the response would be the same as for the T Rex!

    John H Gaukel | April 27th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  4. Nice thought-provoking article.

    Tiffany Karabaich | April 28th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  5. I remember that same article about the creatures with the odd and very useful noses – didn’t they call them nasapods? I think it was in the Animals magazine that I read it (it might have been published more than once) way back in the early 60’s.

    But yes, I do feel the loss of animals I’ve never seen. I remember as a child coming across specimens of the pig-footed bandicoot in the South Australian Museum, thinking they were amongst the cutest little animals I’d ever seen, and then reading the sign that said they were extinct. I felt very sad, and still wish they were frolicking somewhere around our outback (I think that’s where they used to live). I also wish the Thylacine was still out there somewhere in the Tasmanian or mainland forests. Pity about the Thylacoleo and Diprotodons too. And the moas, and that giant eagle of New Zealand. I’d love to have been able to see those, or at least know they were still there.

    Of course no one can actually miss what they’ve never heard of, but the constant loss of species still disturbs me on a personal level in addition to my reaction as an ecologist. We have such a wonderful planet teeming with such diverse life forms – by constantly whittling away at this we are somehow devaluing this planet, our home, and making it less likely that future generations will share the delights that are now open to us – in addition of course to messing with numerous ecological processes.

    Ronda Green | April 28th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  6. You can miss love, accomplishment or happiness without ever having experienced them, so why not a rabbit or a rhino? It is our human capacity to project far out from our physical situation that supposedly is one of the the traits of our species.

    (Originally posted on LinkedIn)

    Alexander (Sandy) Prisant | May 4th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  7. My life has been forever changed by the quality of personal interactions with endangered species. I treasure such opportunities. It extrapolates to an emotional reverence of all natural life for me personally.

    (Originally posted on LinkedIn)

    Bradley Droessler | May 6th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  8. I miss the T Rex.

    Jack | May 12th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  9. We should all miss even the creatures we think are not important or consider a nuisance. Think about the bees and how important they are and how we should be doing more to save them.

    Christine M. Bishop | May 22nd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
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