How some Species can go extinct twice and why we should care

Two species are extinct at once – the first when the last person stops breathing and the second when our collective memories about the species vanish

A study by an international team of scientists has recently been published. It argues that species can disappear twice. There is the biological extinction, when a member of a species dies, and there is also the societal extinction. This occurs when the species is removed from our collective memories and cultural knowledge. Human actions can push species into oblivion at the same or later time.

As with biological extinctions, societal extinctions can have severe conservation implications.

“[J]ust because population declines can lead to biological extermination, the decline of collective awareness and memory may lead the societal extinction of specie which could seriously affect conservation efforts,” said Ivan Jaric (a conservation biologist and researcher Biology Center of the Czech Academy of Sciences).

Dr Jaric and his colleagues discovered that the causes of societal extinction depend on a number of factors. These include species’ charisma, their symbolic or cultural value and whether and when it became extinct. They also consider how far and distant from humans.

Societal extinction has been observed before and noted in scientific literature. Communities in China’s southwest and Bolivian indigenous peoples were both found to have lost the knowledge and memories of extinct species ( ref and ref ).

Uri Roll, an ecologist and senior lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev stated in a statement that “such a loss of memory got so far that people couldn’t even name those species and didn’t know what their songs were.” The extinct Japanese wolf, okami has very few specimens which can be found in museums today, which makes it difficult to remember the species in Japanese society.

The Japanese wolf, also known as the Honshu Wolf, Canis Lupus hodophilax was declared extinct in 1905. This subspecies was only found on the Japanese archipelago islands of Honshu and Shikoku. This animal may have been the closest wild relative of the domestic dog, and was only recently discovered to be the last living member in the Pleistocene gray wolf lineage ( ref).

However, some species are able to evade the inevitable fate of social extinction. What is it that makes them unique in this regard?

In a statement, Ricardo Correia (ecologist at the University of Helsinki) said that species can still be known collectively and popular after becoming extinct.

“However, our knowledge and memory of such species slowly becomes corrupted, often becoming inaccurate, stylized, simplified or disassociated from the actual species.

My concern is with Cyanopsitta Spixii, a little blue macaw that has been disassociated from or misrepresented its extinct species. The small macaw was declared extinct in the wild in 2018. However, approximately 100 individuals are still alive in captivity. However, even though the species was extinct in recent years, a report ( only, in Portuguese), found that children living in Brazil’s Curaca municipality, which is part the parrot’s former range, incorrectly believe this species is in Rio de Janeiro because it appears in the animated film Rio.

However, unlike the Spix’s Macaw, most species will never be able to go extinct in society because most people won’t have ever heard of them.

Dr Roll stated that this is a common occurrence in uncharismatic, small and cryptic species. This includes invertebrates as well as plants, fungi, microorganisms, and many others not yet formally identified by scientists. They suffer declines or extinctions in silence, unnoticed by people and societies.

Why should we be concerned about social extinction?

Dr Jaric explained via email that “Forgetting species that were once present in our environment can affect our perceptions of the environment and what it expects its natural state be like, such as normal or healthy, and this leads to a shifting baseline syndrome.”

The psychological and sociological phenomenon known as Shifting Baseline Syndrome is a psychological and sociological phenomenon in which people continually lower their tolerance for acceptable environmental conditions. Each generation accepts the impoverished environment in which they were born and raised without any prior knowledge or experience ( ref).

Dr Jaric explained via email that “not being aware of species existed and have since disappeared [extinct] can lead to a false perception about the severity of threats, leading to us to underestimate true rates of extinction.” It can decrease our motivation to achieve ambitious conservation goals. It could, for example, reduce public support for rewilding efforts – especially if these species are not remembered as natural parts or the ecosystem.

The reintroduction by the USFWS of the graywolf (Canis laupus) to Yellowstone National Park after they were extinct 70 years ago is a notable rewilding initiative. The successful rewilding efforts allowed trees and shrubs, including young willow and cottonwood that were once eaten by deer and wapiti (elk), to grow. The availability of more animals and plants meant that biodiversity increased as the native flora was reestablished. Beavers, unlike wapiti, have seen a remarkable rebound since they eat young willow trees. The presence of wolves also altered the riverbank erosion, which resulted in rivers meandering less and channels becoming deeper. Small pools were formed, and this was all thanks to the recovery of streamside vegetation ( ref).

Without societal extinctions, none of these remarkable and sometimes unexpected improvements to Yellowstone would have been possible. While it wasn’t intended that wolves would save beavers this real-life experiment illustrates how unexpected consequences of societal extinctions can change our perceptions about the environment and species interactions.

Dr Jaric explained via email that “as more and more species disappears from our memories there is evidence that it alters how important it our perception of how essential it is to preserve what remains”.

Worse, social extinctions can lead to false perceptions about the severity of biodiversity threats and true extinction rates. This can reduce public support for conservation efforts and restoration efforts, such as the reintroductions of wolves in Yellowstone.

“[J]ust because population declines can lead to biological extinction. The decline in collective attention and memory could lead to the societal extermination of species which can severely impact conservation efforts.”

Dr Jaric and his colleagues stressed the importance of long-term, targeted marketing campaigns and conservation education in order to counteract social extinction.


Ivan Jaric and Uri Roll, Marino Bonaiuto. Barry W. Brook, Franck Courtchamp, Josh A. Firth. Kevin J. Gaston. Tina Heger. Jonathan M. Jeschke. Richard J. Ladle. Richard J. Roberts. Kate Sherren. Masashi Soga. Andrea SorianoRedondo. Diogo Verissimo. Ricardo A. Correia (2022). Societal extinction of species, Trends in Ecology and Evolution | doi:10.1016/j.tree.2021.12.011

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