The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Are we in the middle of the next - the 6th - mass extinction event? Which evidences indicate "yes, we are in the middle of a next mass extinction event"? And what role do we humans have? Well, the book by Elizabeth Kolbert is all about these questions. In my opinion, one of the most important books worth to read in these times. Just excellent book!

The Sixth Extinction

Title: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Author: Elizabeth Kolbert
Imprint: Macmillan Publishers
Length: 336 pages
Published: 2015
Language: English


Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions of life on earth.

Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteorid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Elizabeth Kolbert combines brilliant field reporting, the history of ideas and the work of geologists, botanists and marine biologists to tell the gripping stories of a dozen species - including the Panamanian golden frog and the Sumatran rhino - some already gone, others at the point of vanishing.

The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind’s most lasting legacy and Elizabeth Kolbert’s book urgently compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.

Thoughts about the book

One of the most important books I have read recently was definitely the one by Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction. Elizabeth Kolbert is an American journalist writing about environmental issues. In her book The Sixth Extinction she writes about creatures that are currently vanishing of this planet or creatures that have already vanished, respectively.

Her extensive research led her to places like Iceland, Italy or Scotland in Europe, but also to more remote places like in the Amazonian rain forest in Brazil and Peru in South America. For one research she even went to a remote island - One Tree Island, close to Heron Island - in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

But her first story starts in Panama. In Panama she was in search of the Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki). A frog that was once abundant in Panama, but severely decimated by a fungus - Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or amphibian chytrid fungus, respectively - affecting amphibians not only in Panama but worldwide. Amphibians that are exposed to this fungus are not able to take up electrolytes through their skin anymore, and thus, die (apparently because of a heart attack).

What to do against this fungus killing thousands of amphibians?

In a later chapter, Elizabeth Kolbert writes about another desperate situation. This time about bats, as several bat species are affected by another fungus - Geomyces destructans - which is responsible for the death of - this time - thousands of bats.

Both stories sound so desperate...

But what can be done to save all these amphibians or bats against these fungi, and thus, from extinction?

A tough question scientists still look for an answer (please correct me, if there is recent research with a solution to these extinction events).

Elizabeth Kolbert grounds her stories in science. She meets with experts or scientists who provide not only time, but also knowledge and information for her book project about species extinctions.

Why there are species at risk of extinction? Who is responsible? What can be done against their extinction? And which organisms went already extinct?

These are just some of the few questions, the author tries to find an answer.

For some species it might not be too late to do something against their extinction (like for some amphibians, although many species - who knows how many - have already died out). But for others it is definitely already too late.

Like, for example, for the Great Auk.

The Great Auk was a flightless bird once widespread in the North Atlantic. The last two individuals of this species were killed in 1844 on the small island Eldey close to Iceland.

And why did they become extinct?

Well, the Great Auk was heavily hunted. Hunting these birds by humans was so prevalent, that they could not survive against a species which is responsible not only for their demise but also for the one of several others.

Like the Charles Island tortoise. The Dodo. Or the Steller’s sea cow.

Just to name a few.

Although these stories are depressing and sad, simultaneously, they are also gripping and revealing.

Is there another species than us - Homo sapiens - affecting the life of so many others?

I dare to say no.

I believe - I know this does not sound very fact-based, although the book is filled with facts - that there is no other species on earth that is responsible for the extinction of so many other species.

The book is full with stories based on facts. You will also hear more about ammonites or graptolites and places like Gubbio in Gola del Battacione and Castello Aragonese, both in Italy. What do these places have to do with mass extinctions in the past or in the future?

And what about climate change and all the other mass extinction events in the past millions of years ago (when humans not yet populated the earth)? Are we in the middle of the next mass extinction? And are species evolutionarily prepared to this mass extinction in the Anthropocene? A term suggested as a new epoch, but still not approved by any official site...

The book by Elizabeth Kolbert is full with information and facts that indeed indicate the next mass extinction.

And the cause for this mass extinction is... only one species - Homo sapiens.

We change our ecosystems. We exploit the earth. And many of us are not aware of this.

How do we affect our forests and oceans?

What about climate change? Is it human-induced or not?

And what are its effects? Will climate change restructure ecological communities?

Or is a Frozen Zoo at the end the solution for the ecological disasters we are about to cause?

Elizabeth Kolbert describes us humans as "one weedy species" and uses words like "destructive" or "shortsighted" to find a reason for our actions. She has all my sympathy to name us like this. I know it sounds very "anti-human", but isn’t she right about that?

In order not to oversee and disregard all the people dedicated to the conservation of species like the one about the California condor or the whooping crane, at least she gives us some hope and optimism that there are still many "forward-thinking" and "altruistic" people out there...


Engrossing. Thought-provoking book. But also worrisome and hopeful at the same time. Please read the book and share the message!

Have you already read The Sixth Extinction? What are your thoughts? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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