The Survivors of the Last Mass Extinction: What Are They Telling Us?

Vegavis iaai. Restoration drawing by El fosilmaniaco

Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid, 14 kilometers in width, struck the earth with the force of more than a million atomic bombs. Three-quarters of life on earth was obliterated, including all the dinosaurs. This was the fifth, and the last of the mass extinctions that occurred on this planet since its birth.

It is only in the last few decades that it has become apparent that some dinosaurs survived, and that their descendants are living among us. These are birds, and recent scientific research shows that these dinosaurs were not just bird-like, but actually birds.

Not all the bird dinosaurs survived. It is believed that those living in trees became extinct, and the bird dinosaurs that lived on the ground survived. Scientific evidence indicates that the asteroid explosion, and the subsequent wildfires, demolished the world’s forests. It was the ground-dwelling birds that could eke out a living among the ferns growing in the ashes of the forest that survived.

Today’s ducks, chickens, and ostriches are the direct descendants of these ground-dwelling bird dinosaurs. It took thousands of years for the forests and other ecosystems to recover from the asteroid impact. But without competition from the now extinct non-bird dinosaurs, birds began to evolve into a highly diverse group of animals. As the earth recovered, birds began to occupy a vast array of ecological niches. They are now more biologically diverse than all the other vertebrates except fish.

There were some other land-based animals that survived the last mass extinction. One of these was the mammals. At the time of the asteroid impact, there were already many kinds of mammals, but it is believed that only very small, shrew-like, ground-dwelling mammals survived the heat generated by the explosion by remaining in their burrows. Like the birds, the surviving mammals evolved to fill a multitude of ecological niches. While not as biologically diverse as birds, mammals came to dominate life on the planet with the emergence of the human. With the burrowing, shrew-like mammal as their most distant relative, humans are now so dominant, and consume such a large share of the Earth’s resources, that they may become the cause of the next, and sixth, mass extinction.

On May 6th, the United Nations published a report on biodiversity. It demonstrated that 25% of all animal and plant species are threatened, and around 1 million species may already be facing extinction within a few decades. One of the ways of defining mass extinction is when the rate of animals and plants going extinct is much greater than the rate of new species appearing. We may thus be on the cusp of a mass extinction.

The United Nations biodiversity report names a host of social, economic, and policy initiatives that can reduce or reverse the rate of species and ecosystem losses ( In sum, they entail a transformation of our environmental ethic.

Let me suggest one way that we can learn to restore biodiversity and by doing so, save ourselves. Let us learn from the bird dinosaurs that survived the last mass extinction. Over 65 million years, they have learned to adapt to changes in the environment, from the scorching heat of an asteroid strike, to the glaciation of their habitats during several glacial periods. Canada’s aboriginal people understand the importance of learning from nature, as their history contains numerous teachings from birds and mammals about adapting to their physical and spiritual world.

Birds are not afraid to come to us.  They live in our backyards, in our towns and cities, in our farmlands and forest camps, and at sea with our fishing boats. Let us view their presence as an offering of friendship. Let us accept their offer and treat them with the respect that friends deserve. This is how we can begin to change our environmental ethic.

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