The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

Category: extinction

Endling, a new word for new times

I have published an article “Endling, the power of the last in an extinction-prone world” in the journal Environmental Philosophy. In the article I put together the history of a word (and the history of the idea) to represent the last individual of a species.

This word, endling, has an exciting 20-year history. It began with a proposal in a short letter to the journal Nature in 1996 to coin a word to represent the last in a line. It was then picked up by the curators of the planned National Museum of Australia (NMA) that opened its doors in 2001 as part of a memorial to extinction, with a special focus on the thylacine. This sparked the word onto its journey into popular culture as well as popular science.

The Endling display at the National Museum of Australia. Photo by D. Jørgensen, 2016.

Importantly in this history, I show much museums and their presentations of ideas matter. I had the good fortune to visit NMA in 2016 (thanks to Professor Libby Robin for arranging my trip and interview with the former curator!). The Endling cabinet or monument was striking with its aluminum shine and central position in the exhibit. Its no wonder that the first people to pick up on endling as a concept had visited the exhibit. The history of endling proves that museum designers and curators have the power to make a difference in how people think and express those thoughts.

Through my historical narrative of this word, I argue that endling could play a key role in remembering species that have become extinct and encouraging action to avoid extinction in the future:

The concept of endling, with its ability to bridge the gap between species extinction as an abstraction and the death of an animal as a concrete event, offers a new way of thinking about extinction. It can make the narrative personal while retaining the universality of extinction—when this individual is gone, the whole species is no more.

This was a very different piece for me to research and write. I interviewed a symphonic composer and a artistic director and choreographer about their uses of endling. I read modern science fiction stories, which are often born digital, that frame the last of a species as an endling. I looked at the visual arts that used the term. And I even got to do research into the different genres of metal music (and played one song over and over again to try to make out the lyrics with its raspy metal voice — to no avail). It was an adventure to follow a word as it popped up here and there in, what at first, were unexpected places. And yet all of it made sense in light of the power of the word as a response to the sixth mass extinction event which we are living through. With new times, we need new words.

I hope you’ll enjoying reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Read my unformatted version of the text or go to the journal’s official version.

On the last of the tigers

This September 7th marks the 80th anniversary of the extinction of the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger. Or at least, that’s the date that has been agreed upon in official sources as the extinction date.

I took up the issue of dating the thylacine’s extinction in my recently published article “Presence of absence, absence of presence, and extinction narratives” in the volume Nature, Temporality and Environmental Management: Scandinavian and Australian Perspectives on Landscapes and Peoples. The question is whether or not the absence of evidence of live thylacines should be interpreted as the absence of thylacines. This proves a more challenging question to answer than you might think.

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Perception of risk of harm

Today I gave a lecture at the ESEH Summer School called “Knowing and not knowing: How ideas of risk affect responses to disease and pests”. I picked this topic because the School is focused on “The Undesirable: How Parasites, Diseases, and Pests Shape Our Environments”. It made a nice follow-up to my talk earlier this summer at the parasite conference in Turku.

In the talk I laid out some initial thoughts about how we as environmental historians can historicise responses to things identified as dangerous or harmful. My proposal was that responses are determined by the perception of risk of harm based on knowledge or lack of knowledge.

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Thylacine Day 2015

Yesterday was Thylacine Day, or more officially National Threatened Species Day, in Australia. In 1996, Australia established the day to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the death of the thylacine which was in the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania.

In many official statements about National Threatened Species Day, this zoo animal is called the “last Tasmanian tiger” (for example by Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection and New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage). The National Museum of Australia presents the thylacine as becoming extinct as a species on 7 September 1936 with death of the Beaumaris zoo specimen, which has become known as ‘Benjamin’ although there are many questions about where this name originated (see Paddle’s The Last Tasmanian Tiger for discussion of the controversy). When the Tangled Destinies exhibit, now known as the Old New Land exhibit, opened at the museum in 2001, Benjamin was described as the “endling“, the last of a species, in the exhibit text and pedagogical material accompanying it. Although there has been ongoing debate as to whether or not thylacines are really extinct (I talked about this in my Search for the Last paper along with the beaver in Sweden), Thyacine Day marks the end of the species.

As a day of commemoration, National Threatened Species Day is not a celebratory day but a day of mourning. It doesn’t mark the end of a war or celebrate labourers and military service or highlight national independence. Unlike Earth Day, which asks people to think broadly about the human relationship with out planet on the 22nd of April, Thylacine Day puts a specific environmental tragedy into focus and asks how we can avoid the same fate for other species.

In honor of Thylacine Day 2015, the 79th anniversary of the death of the thylacine in Hobart’s zoo, I thought I’d share with you some of the thylacines I’ve seen in museum exhibits. No matter how many I see, each new one strikes me with a tangible sadness. As they look out from their glass cases, they always seem to ask the same question: why?

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