Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Mars, Thylacines, Ferrets, and Defending Science

The last few days have been full of headline-making science stories. We landed another rover on Mars, cloned an endangered species, and may have rediscovered a species believed to be extinct. If this is all great news, why are some scientists so defensive? The Twitterverse is a strange entanglement of overlapping galaxies, and this week is bringing out the best and worst in the scientific community.

© USFWS National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center via

Depositing a self-propelled data-collecting rover on a distant planet is a technological achievement for which the creators and support personnel should rightly be proud. Among the congratulatory and celebratory voices, however, were those who complained immediately that such milestones unleash an inevitable flurry of public resentment over tax dollars being spent on the “luxury” of space exploration. Public perception, they claim, is that interstellar endeavors are a waste of time, money, and other resources when we have urgent problems affecting flesh-and-blood people here on planet Earth. Landing a rover on Mars while citizens in Texas and other southern states were freezing in the wake of a polar vortex was a coincidence of, dare I say, astronomical proportions.

At the other end of the spectrum came news that is igniting excitement from the public, but criticism from scientists. A video announcement was released suggesting that a trail camera had possibly detected a family of three thylacines, the infamous “Tasmanian tiger,” a large carnivorous marsupial that vaguely resembles a dog. The thylacine was last documented conclusively with the last wild individual captured in 1930. The man in the video has turned over the trail cam images to experts for their evaluation, rather than posting them immediately to the internet. That cautionary act enhances his credibility.

Unfortunately, the immediate reaction of the scientific community was overwhelmingly negative. The consensus seems to be that hunting for thylacines is a fool’s errand, a waste of time, money, and other resources when we have urgent problems affecting endangered species that we know for a fact exist, if by a thread. Sound familiar?

Conservation scientists appear threatened by competition from those still looking for thylacines, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and other species believed extinct. However, the Formosan subspecies of the Clouded Leopard was declared extinct as of 2013 and yet rediscovered in Taiwan last year. We are, in fact, still discovering new species of mammals every few years. Criticizing scientists engaged in those efforts amounts to a form of bullying and is at best unprofessional.

Meanwhile, it was also announced that scientists in Colorado successfully cloned a female of the highly-endangered Black-footed Ferret. Rarely has anyone been able to spin the science of cloning in a positive fashion, but here we are. At first blush, this does not appear to be cause for elation because it means the youngster is a genetic duplicate of its “parent.” In this case, the female she was cloned from died back in the mid-1980s, so this little one does represent an enhancement of the gene pool.

The only criticism anyone can level at the ferret story is that the species still needs intact prairies, and a prey base of prairie dogs, to sustain and increase its numbers. Here in Colorado, anyway, agricultural interests (to include ranching) and developers, and fossil fuel extracting companies all seem hell bent on eradicating prairie dog towns.

All of us, scientists and the general populace, at least here in the U.S., are guilty of accepting the idea of scarce resources for which we must compete. This is especially true of federal budgets that allocate only so much to each public concern. Pressure needs to be exerted on Congress, and the corporate sector, to be more responsible in budget decisions. What good is a bloated defense budget if we don’t have a country worth defending? Why are only majority shareholders and executive officers of publicly-traded companies the beneficiaries of corporate wealth?

We vote for government representation at some level at least every two years, but we vote in the marketplace daily. We need to make our spending dollars count in both our consumer choices and in our private donations to causes we believe in, from civil rights to endangered species to space exploration. Let’s stop complaining reactively, and be more proactive instead.

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