The dolphin and the butterfly
BY MARY O’BRIEN
Yangtze River’s freshwater dolphin, the baiji (Lipotes vexillifer), and Willamette Valley’s Fender’s blue butterfly (Icaricia icarioides fenderi) shared at least six characteristics: 1) Bluish color; 2) reputation as a benign, beautiful creature; 3) depletion by humans of food source to one thousandth of its previous extent; 4) decline of its own population to dangerously few individuals; 5) governmental recognition as endangered; and, 6) after being recognized as endangered, the continuation of human activities known to threaten their extinction.
After the baiji was known to be near extinction, the Chinese continued to fish illegally with electricity; build the Three Gorges Dam; multiply; overfish the river; and clog the Yangtze with noisy boats that have baiji-threatening propellers.
Similarly, since the Fender’s blue butterfly has been listed as endangered, Willamette Valley-ites have continued to plan buildings for sites occupied by the butterfly’s essential host plant (which is officially threatened with extinction) and on sites which could readily be restored as habitat for the butterfly. On one such site, we plan to build structures in which to teach human children about the nearby depleted wetlands. On others, we are variously planning more housing developments for our growing population, a crematorium, more big-box stores and widened streets that might help car- or truck-bound drivers shave a few minutes off their car commutes and truck deliveries.
One more similarity: Their names foretell doom. The baiji’s genus name is Lipotes, meaning “left behind,” so chosen because of the dolphin’s small territory. The Fender’s genus name is Icaricia, after the Greek story of Icarus, who died when his wings were melted by the sun.
On the other hand, the porpoise and the butterfly were quite different: While a few Fenders are still with us, the baiji was pronounced extinct a few weeks ago. International experts found no remaining baiji during a 2,200-mile expedition down the Yangtze in late 2006.
A baiji weighed up to 500 pounds; a Fender’s blue butterfly weighs about a feather (which is a safe guess, given the range in feather sizes).
The baiji used its long snout to eat almost any kind of fish as long as it was smaller than 2.5 inches wide. Fender’s blue butterfly uses its long proboscis to drink nectar from flowers.
A female baiji had to be a grown-up six-year old before mothering her first, single baby. A Fender’s blue female can lay eggs just one year after hatching as a larva and has only 15 days to do so after emerging as a butterfly.
The baiji navigated in murky water with echolocation (sound); Fender’s blue swims through clear air with sight as well as smell and sound.
The Fender’s needs complex mixtures of upland and wetland prairie. The baiji needed eddies and meanders below Yangtze tributary convergences and sandbars.
In other words, the biology of the two creatures provided the differences; the human response to the two creatures’ worsening plight has been the same.
Of course, there are more to come — the Yangtze finless porpoise is now endangered; so also the Willamette daisy in these same Willamette Valley wetlands. And then there are the polar bears and all the other species who will not be able to find new habitat as we heat up our atmosphere; the sage grouse as we dig for global-warming oil and gas and graze our global-warming-methane cows in the remaining sagebrush … and …. and … and …
What are the options to despair? The three eternal standbys: think, care, act.
THINK. People like Al Gore are helping us think — see An Inconvenient Truth. Peruse www.RealClimate.org, a website maintained by climate scientists. Read A Shadow and a Song, the story of how homeowners, NASA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Disney World failed the dusky seaside sparrow.
CARE. Nothing will help you care more than empathizing with an individual species. Rent the videos March of the Penguins and Winged Migrations to get a feeling for the extraordinary skills and effort species use to live and produce their unique babies. Read the humorous stories in Last Chance to See, co-authored by Douglas Adams, author of Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
ACT. Invest in citizen organizations that work to save the habitat of endangered or declining species. You might figure out what you spend annually to take care of your dog or cat and match that with donations to such a group.
Be inconvenienced by truth. If we don’t want to lose most of our clever and beautiful friends, we have to quit destroying their outdoors with our reproduction, consumption and technologies.
Mary O’Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org