We are heading towards a world without puffins or toucans. Is that really what we want?

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For decades, ecologists have warned about the homogenization of diversity—species becoming more similar—in the living world. Now researchers at the University of Sheffield have published research which predicts that bird species with striking and extreme traits are likely to become extinct first. “The global extinction crisis doesn’t just mean we’re losing species,” says the study’s leader, Dr. Emma Hughes. “That means we’re losing unique characteristics and evolutionary history.”

This shows that human activity is not only drastically reducing the number of species, it is probably disproportionately destroying the most unique, unusual and distinctive creatures on earth.

What would it mean to no longer share a planet with the toucan, and its vibrant beak four times the size of its head, even if you never see one in real life? Or the elegant Bengal Florican, which looks like a walking G-clef. Or the iridescent hummingbird? Or the bird of paradise with its rococo coiled plumes?

Puffin at Bagh Mhiughlaigh (Mingulay Bay).

A puffin at Bagh Mhiughlaigh (Mingulay Bay). Photo: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Many of the potential consequences are unpredictable but grim. As Hughes says, we are losing species that could “provide unique benefits to humanity that are currently unknown”. And we already know that the consequences of species loss can be catastrophic. The decline of vultures in India and the loss of their hunting, scavenging niche has already had negative consequences for human populations, including the spread of disease.

This will not only affect remote locations with higher numbers of uncommon species. “The extinction crisis will lead to a loss of morphological diversity in the UK too,” says Hughes. Unfortunately, the Atlantic puffin, one of Britain’s best-loved birds, and other unique seabirds such as the black-legged tern and Leach’s tern are vulnerable.

Losing any species is tragic, but we are also facing the decline of the species that inspires the most awe in humans. In short, we can expect the world to become “really plain and brown and boring,” Dr Eliot Miller, of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, told the New York Times. Several sparrows; fewer puffins.

Male peacock spider.

A male peacock spider. Photo: BIOSPHOTO/Alamy

If you were captured by an alien and asked to argue why the Earth should not be blown up, what would you say? As much as I love little brown jobs, I like to think of the species so beautiful and unusual that you can hardly believe they are real.

I would tell them about the mandrill with its bright blue and pink face and rear. I would tell them about the hornbills that look like they are balancing a banana on their heads. I would like to mention the atlas mill which is as big as a human hand. The peacock’s jumping spider, the Christmas tree worm, the elf owl. I would tell them of the curlew, with its extraordinary curved bill; the kingfisher thundering down the river like a turquoise meteor; the flamboyant antlers of a deer. I would tell them about mountain gorillas and blue whales and golden eagles. Baobab, frogs and diatoms. Toucans! We have toucans!

It would not be difficult to argue, for the exuberant diversity of life on Earth is its signature and wonder.

Wonder is not just pleasant, or a luxury. Researchers have shown that experiencing awe has a measurable effect on human health. A University of Toronto study found that awe was the only positive emotion that predicted lower levels of unhealthy inflammation. Fear can also affect how we treat other people. People are more ethical, kind, and generous after feeling awe, and despite our unprecedented alienation from the nonhuman, we still get most of our experiences of awe from the living world.

All this focus on human emotions sounds terribly anthropocentric and a minor problem, but humans are naturally curious – and curiosity thrives on variety and diversity. While denial in the face of climate breakdown and extinction seems hard to shake, could this new deepening of what the biodiversity crisis means – a less interesting world – be a warning that cuts through?

This latest research illustrates what the often difficult biodiversity crisis looks like: a less brilliant, less vibrant world. It is heartbreaking, yes, but galvanizing, and an opportunity for focus and pressure on those in power. The vast majority of us do not want to live in a world without toucans and puffins. Or a boring world, or a dying world. So would politicians care to mention how they juxtapose the myopic focus on “growth” with a burnt-out, used-up earth that clearly tells us to stop?

If we wipe out the species with the most unique traits, and continue to destroy the Earth’s rich diversity, we will all be impoverished in ways we cannot yet understand. Even if we never see a toucan in the wild, we are still their relatives. Their wildness is still, in some way, a part of us. We are still animals among animals.

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