When Steve Beissinger led a team of scientists from UC Berkeley into Southern California’s Mojave Desert, the landscape looked much as it did in photographs taken at the turn of the 20th century by Joseph Grinnell, a famed biologist. But there was one noticeable difference: Many birds were missing.
The group’s research, published in 2018, found that about a third of the 135 bird species known to have called the desert home had declined significantly. Surveys of 61 sites in the Mojave showed they had lost an average 43% of their species.
The numbers were so stark, and so unlike what scientists were seeing in the rest of the state, Beissinger and his doctoral students began to wonder whether climate change had made an already extreme environment almost uninhabitable.
“The long-term change, the drying of these places, as well as the heat has made it more difficult for species to survive there,” Beissinger said. “You see this collapse of a whole community — not just one or two species, but a lot of them.”
Unlike mountain-dwelling species that are known to climb to higher elevations in search of cooler weather, desert species might not have anywhere else to go.
Other species are not arriving to replace those that are gone. So far, there appears to be only one type of bird whose numbers are increasing in the Mojave: the common raven.
There are signs of struggle everywhere, most notably in California. The state boasts some of the most diverse plant and animal life in the United States, California has more than 300 endangered species, including the Mojave birds and the delta smelt that have prevented the state from doing improvement projects in the north to provide more water flow to the South.
A new United Nations report warning of a global extinction crisis identifies three parts of the world in particular danger: South America, Africa and parts of Asia.
Worldwide, the United Nations’ assessment found that of an estimated 8 million plant and animal species, about 1 million are on the brink of extinction because of the damage humans are inflicting on the Earth through global warming, logging, farming, mining and other activities. It was compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries.
The full report won’t be made public until later this year, but a summary released early in May offered a damning assessment of human impacts over the last five decades.
Here are some stories of what this loss of biodiversity looks like in California.
Delta smelt are an endangered species caught in a battle between environmentalists trying to save them and farmers who dismiss such efforts as prioritizing fish over people.
First listed as endangered in 1993, the species is now on the verge of extinction. In 2018, the California fish population survey, in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which along with the San Francisco Bay, is the fish’s only habitat, could not find a single delta smelt in four months of looking.
Farmers south of the delta who rely on freshwater to sustain lucrative, water-intensive crops like fruit and nuts, have essentially competed with the smelt and migrating salmon for water.
The diminishing animal populations and vegetation are of concern to the people who live in what was previously called the Golden State, but climate change is hard to control.
It is, however, important that the United Nations’ survey shows where the losses are occurring so remedial actions can be taken as time and money will allow.