At least five times in its tumultuous history, our planet has experienced "mass extinction events," during which three-quarters or more of the Earth's species died out. The most recent of these ushered out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Now scientists are wondering if we have entered a sixth extinction period, this time caused by human activity.
With the support of a Center media fellowship, the science writer and author Mary Ellen Hannibal is exploring the scientific insights leading to our understanding of mass extinction in an upcoming six-part series in The New York Times. Dubbing these theories "extinction's greatest hits," Hannibal explains concepts like island biogeography – how fragmentation caused by development can isolate pockets of habitat for particular species; trophic cascades, by which the loss of top predators can undermine the health of a whole ecosystem; and co-evolution, how species developed in dependency with others.
Each article in the series will examine a different theory – some of them developed at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve – and draw connections to the future of the western landscape. "The fact that so much of the research in conservation biology and extinction focuses on the West", says Hannibal, "Is testament to the wildness we still have here, the scope and scale of the landscape, and the history of its biotic inhabitants."
Hannibal, who shared in the 2012 Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism, is the author of The Spine of the Continent, a book about conservation efforts along the Rocky Mountains, and is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, Nautilus, High Country News, and other publications.
Her stories will run in print and online in The New York Times's Sunday Review section starting later this spring. To hear more about the series and the reporting behind it, attend Hannibal's lunchtime talk at the Center on May 28.