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Teaching Biology Blog

The Red List

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Last week the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released its annual Red List, a scientific census of the conservation status of plant and animal species. The list is not comprehensive – it covers only 45,000 species, out of the roughly 2 million known and 5 or 10 or 15 million estimated to exist. But it’s a useful snapshot of how the diversity and abundance of life as we know it is changing over time. And it provides yet another terrible, teachable lesson on the harsh realities of biology.

The status of the Fishing Cat of southeast Asia has been changed from Vulnerable to Endangered, because of widespread losses of its preferred wetlands habitat.

The Red List is a natural for online research into conservation issues. Students can use the IUCN website to look into the methodology, evaluate the threat categories, and contemplate the implications of situations such as ‘extinct in the wild’ and ‘data deficient.’ They can compare the yearly reports, browse the photo galleries and case studies of mainly the very cutest endangered animals, and compare trends and patterns in terrestrial and marine life. The list is also an obvious jumping off point for further study of conservation, habitat degradation, and the fate of particular species or ecosystems.

Education these days also demands something beyond facts and figures and objective assessments. No lesson is complete without open-ended, free-range discussion questions. They practically write themselves when it comes to the conservation of endangered species and extinction – there are so many ethical, political, and social aspects involved, so much blame to lay, so many hard decisions to debate. These are subjects that students have opinions on, opinions they’ll share without having to be poked at with a sharp stick.

I don’t know about you, but for the most part I’ve found that students think extinction is bad. But cynicism and indifference do pop up too, and I’ve been surprised that they’re a lot more prevalent in students right out of high school than they are in older returning adults. Does early, repeated exposure to Barney make extinction seem less troubling?

Photo by Bob Bennett, osfimages.com

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