The extinction of a species, in the biological sense, occurs when the last animal of a particular species finally dies. However, a study, published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, suggests that extinction can happen a second time. This phenomenon, they call social extinction.
Researchers at Oxford University's Department of Zoology define the term as the loss of our collective attention and memory towards a species. Species could disappear from our societies, cultures and discussions at the same time, or even before the moment when they are biologically extinct as a result of different human actions.
How Social Exclusion Occurs
Factors surrounding the species' cultural symbolism draw attention. The interdisciplinary and international group of scientists also cited charisma, the time that has passed since the species' extinction, and how distant or isolated it is from humans. These points would bring up social extinction, erasing the memories we have of extinct species.
Social extinction affects our perceptions of the environment, hindering restoration and conservation goals, and diminishing support for these efforts. In addition, the authors point out that the global crisis in biodiversity includes the loss of experiences with nature, as well as the gradual forgetting of cultural knowledge and collective memories of species.
According to scientists, social extinction is linked to biological extinction, and plays an important role in conservation policies. One of the consequences, for example, is the loss of a people's cultural heritage.
Social extinction studies
Studies in southwest China and with indigenous people in Bolivia have demonstrated the loss of local knowledge and memories of extinct bird species.
In Brazil, the Ararinha da Natureza Project, linked to the reintroduction of the hyacinth macaw into the wild, also pointed out something interesting. In a report done in 2013, 242 children were interviewed about the bird's natural habitat. Almost all of them believed that the hyacinth macaw was from Rio de Janeiro, due to the movie River released in 2011.
Blue macaw display ( Cyanopsitta spixii ) at the Museum of Natural Sciences, Berlin, Germany. The species is endemic to Brazil.
Doctor Uri Roll, a co-author of the study and researcher at Bem-Gurion University of the Negev, added on the subject, "Species also pose to remain collectively known after they go extinct, or become even more popular."
"However, our perception and memory of these species gradually morphs, and they often become inaccurate, stylized or simplified, and disassociated from the actual species," he said.
Another researcher, and lead author of the study, Doctor Ivan Jaric, from the Centre for Biology of the Czech Academy of Sciences, emphasized:
"It is important to note that most species actually cannot be socially extinct, simply because they never had a social presence to begin with. This is common with uncharismatic, small, cryptic, or inaccessible species, especially among invertebrates, plants, fungi, and microorganisms."
Insights and observations
One of the examples given is that of medicinal plants. Many of them are about to be socially extinct, even though they are still present in nature. This is because we have replaced these plants with more modern alternatives, losing our knowledge about them in the process.
The researchers also found several links between social extinction and lack of support for biodiversity conservation. "Maintaining perceptions of species and the threats around them also have cognitive and emotional consequences for individuals," they wrote. "Solving these problems will need multidisciplinary approaches that go beyond ecology and biological conservation."