Lost & Found

This plant, Vicia dennesiana, has been collected and recorded once in the wild, on São Miguel in the Azores. Soon after, the collection locality was destroyed. Now only three specimens are known.
The picture of natural history revealed by the fossil record, and explained in theories of evolution and plate tectonics, is one of disappearance and emergence. Mountains rise as continental plates meet, only to be eroded by the elements; species become extinct and vanish.

Major environmental changes in the past have led to mass extinctions, the most famous surely that of the dinosaurs. The human impacts of global exploration from the 15th century onwards also led to more rapid, localised extinctions, symbolised by the Dodo of Mauritius.

Geologists have rediscovered lost worlds by modelling environments and reconstructing the flora and fauna that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. Scientists are also finding new kinds of life, and new ecosystems too, as the black smoker display below shows.

In the 21st century, our understanding of ecologies and extinction is perhaps greater than ever before. The need to manage our own environmental impact is apparent if we do not want to be responsible for the further disappearance of life.

Black smoker chimney from the mid-Atlantic ridge, collected in 2001. Along the mid-ocean ridges hydrothermal vents expel very hot chemical-rich water. The chemicals react with seawater to form sulphide mineral chimneys around the vents, known as ‘black smokers’. Bacteria have evolved to feed on this chemical ‘stew’ and in turn are dinner to a variety of other organisms living in this dark, acidic environment.

The huia was endemic to the North Island of New Zealand, but became extinct at the start of the 20th century. The huia exhibited a striking example of sexual dimorphism - different characteristics between males and females of the same species. The male’s beak was short and straight, adapted for pecking; the female’s was long and curved, adapted to reach into holes to grab insects.