Why the Aflockalypse Is Business As Usual For Biodiversity—And Why That’s Not Good

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Photo: Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images | Source: Reuters

Call it the Aflockalypse, the Aquapalypse or some other clever term that will soon be trending on Twitter. What’s clear is that something odd seems to going on with the birds in the sky and the fish in the waters. First on New Year’s Day, the residents of Beebe, Arkansas awoke to find thousands of dead birds scattered over rooftops and streets and cars, like the casualties of some terrible avian battle. Then a couple of days later, just 125 miles away from Beebe, tens of thousands of fish washed up dead in the Arkansas River. On Tuesday hundreds of dead starlings, cowbirds and redwing blackbirds were found on the highway near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, while more dead birds have been found in Sweden. (Julian Assange has so far not been implicated.) Hundreds of dead snappers have washed up on the beaches of New Zealand, while other fish have been found dead in Britain, in Florida, in Brazil and Haiti. With so many mass animal deaths occurring together in such a short period of time, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask the question: are the end times nigh?

Actually, no, it’s not reasonable at all. While it is possible that these string of suspicious animal deaths could signal some kind Revelations-like event (“a third of the living creatures in the sea died“), it’s really, really, really unlikely. For one thing, as they examine the deaths, scientists are already beginning to come up with explanations—none of which so far involves a pale horse and a pale rider. The dead fish in Florida, Britain and Maryland were likely caught by a sudden cold snap—not unusual in early January. The fish that died in the Arkansas River were all of the same species, which suggests a sudden outbreak of a specific disease rather than mass poisoning or toxic pollution. As for the birds who died above Beebe, preliminary autopsy reports suggest that they suffered internal trauma, which means they could have either gotten caught in a sudden and violent storm, or they could have become disoriented—possibly due to New Year’s fireworks—and flown into trees and houses. As Greg Butcher of the Audubon Society told the Guardian:

Mass bird die-offs can be caused by starvation, storms, disease, pesticide, collision with man-made structures or human disturbance … Initial findings indicate that these are isolated incidents that were probably caused by disturbance and disorientation.

But there’s even better evidence that this sudden—and suddenly publicized—spate of animal deaths has more to do with the media than metaphysics: it’s not even that unusual. LeAnn White, a wildlife disease specialist with the U.S. Geographical Survey, told Jenny Marder of the NewsHour that she knew of at least 16 cases over the past 20 years of large numbers of blackbirds dying all at once. “We just think it’s a rather strange coincidence,” White said.

If that’s doesn’t convince you, though, try Google (hat tip to the Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal, who tried this with a tweet):

And so on. Scientists know this—if you start looking for something in a large enough data set, chances are you’ll find it. So when one perfectly timed bird death event occurs, it gives the media license to keep looking for similar events—and as a quick trip through the news archives show, it won’t be hard to find them. But that’s practically the definition of a coincidence. It won’t be too long before the media moves onto the next meme, and the Aflockalypse is a-forgotten, just like past sensational but evanescent stories like the Ground Zero mosque or the TSA patdowns.

That’s a shame, though, because even though the Aflockalypse isn’t the apocalypse, the very fact that these mass deaths are seemingly so common shows how hard life is becoming for other forms of life on this planet. Whether it’s poaching or poisoning, habitat loss or climate change, wildlife around the planet have been squeezed out by expanding human populations—and the future isn’t looking much better. A major study that came out late last year painted a dire picture of biodiversity on planet Earth, showing that one-fifth of the vertebrate species in the world are threatened with extinction. In 2002, the world’s governments had promised to cut the rate of species loss by 2010—and they failed. At the summit of the Convention on Biological Diversity in the Japanese city of Nagoya last year, those same governments pledged to protect more of the planet and slow extinction rates by 2020. I hope they’ll do better this time, but I can’t say I’m optimistic.

With more of us appearing on the planet every day—wanting more and more—I wonder if there’s room for other species. The Aflockalypse doesn’t signal the end of times for us, but it could be one chapter in a slow-moving apocalypse for birds, fish and every other species that keep us company on this planet.