When photographer Marc Schlossman held a missing and dead bird in his hand, he had what he calls a “conversion moment.”
In 2008 in the bird department of the Field Museum in Chicago with his two young sons, he realized that the specimen drawer where the bird had been recovered was the only place someone could see the bird species.
“It was like a punch in the stomach and thinking, ‘We’ve done a lot of damage. What kind of world do we want to live in? Enough is enough,'” said Schlossman, who lives in London.
Pictured is the cover of “Extinction: Our Fragile Relationship With Life on Earth”. Credit: Marc Schlossman
Through striking photographs of specimens taken more than 15 years since that transformative visit to the museum, “Extinction” serves as both a warning and a beacon of hope: it features extinct and endangered animals that have suffered losses due to habitat destruction, hunting, legal and illegal. wildlife trade, disease and other human-driven threats. But Schlossman points out that it’s not too late for some of these endangered species.
Pictured is a specimen of a Carolina parakeet from the Field Museum, a species once coveted for its colorful feathers and wiped out by disease. Credit: Marc Schlossman
Of the 82 species in the book, 23 are extinct, according to Schlossman. “The rest have either been brought back from the brink of extinction as conservation successes, or can be saved with strong conservation work and habitat preservation.”
“We have done a lot of damage as a species. But let’s do what we have to do, because we are at a critical moment in history.”
A detail of a giant Floreana tortoise from the Field Museum collection is shown. The species was hunted to extinction by 1850. Credit: Marc Schlossman
Schlossman’s call to action comes at a crucial time, as the world’s accelerating loss of biodiversity threatens the interconnectedness and future of all life forms, including humans.
“We’re losing species faster than we’re discovering them,” he said, “and before we realize their role in the world’s ecosystems.”
Schlossman’s ability to document some of these lost species dates back to the 1970s, when he spent several summers volunteering in the Field Museum’s mammal division as a teenager, he said. After a visit to the museum with her sons, she approached Field Museum curator John Bates about what she could do as a photographer to tell the stories of some of the specimens in the museum’s collection and see where that went.
Over the next decade, he photographed among specimens of birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, mammals, insects and plants. “In any natural history museum, on average, 1% of the collection is on display. They gave me access to the 99% you don’t see… Every collection director had to agree, so it was necessary. to spend a little time,” Schlossman said. “I have that relationship with the Field Museum, and the culture of the Field Museum is very progressive.”
Schlossman’s underlying ethos in curating her book is that every species matters — especially the pollinators involved in the process of bringing food to our tables — but also “charismatic” species, she said.
The rusty patched bee introduced in “Extinction” is one such crucial pollinator. It once thrived in the United States and Canada, but has experienced the worst decline of any North American bee species. Scientists estimate that the critically endangered species has disappeared from 87% of its natural range, and the book states that the population has fallen by 95% in recent decades.
This specimen of the endangered rusty patch is from the collection of the Field Museum. Credit: Marc Schlossman
Among some of the extinct species photographed by Schlossman, only one specimen remained — as with a tiny Mexican ray, whose inclusion reflected the book’s more dire message.
“It was in a tributary that crossed Mexico City and, due to urban development, they put too much pressure on it,” said Schlossman.
The last known thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, died in captivity in 1936. This specimen is from the collection of the Field Museum. Credit: Marc Schlossman
As Schlossman worked on his book, themes or patterns of human behavior became apparent. “Why do we have to hunt these things to extinction? What is it about our species that we don’t manage resource use in a sustainable way?” he asked.
“We are poisoning ourselves by overexploiting natural resources in this reckless way,” Schlossman said. “It’s really important that people get that. I don’t know how we think we’re going to dodge this bullet that we’re creating for ourselves.”
The Chinese pangolin (specimen in the Field Museum’s collection) is critically endangered due to human hunting for its scales, meat and blood. Credit: Marc Schlossman
A little hope
Schlossman hopes his images will spark ideas and optimism for the conservation of other species. “Human activities can nurture as well as harm,” said Jeremy Kerr, professor and director of the biology department at the University of Ottawa in Ontario.
An example is the success of California’s Condor Recovery Program, which Schlossman included in “Extinction” to show how human intervention has saved a species. The initiative, which began in 1975, is the result of a cooperative effort led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, involving a wide range of federal and state agencies and non-governmental organizations.
“The population was down to 22, and they caught them all and put this captive breeding program in place. And the birds are encouraged to lay two eggs a year to increase the population quickly,” Schlossman said.
“The chicks from the hatchery eggs were handled and raised using condor puppets so they wouldn’t imprint on humans. So basically, if the condor chick saw a human face, they would think that was their mother,” he added. “They used puppet condors to raise them… As of 2020, there were over 500 condors.”
New Zealand’s kākāpo (specimens in the Field Museum’s collection) have been preserved through a government-sponsored relocation and recovery program, according to “Extinction.” Credit: Marc Schlossman
‘Get up and fight harder’
Pictured are monarch butterfly specimens from the Field Museum’s collection. Credit: Marc Schlossman
“Extinction” is available now in the UK and US.