5 Treasures Murdered by the Scientists Tasked With Protecting Them
A scientist is both an investigator and a guardian, tasked with observing the world and also with protecting it zealously. Wait, no, sorry. That’s Batman. We don’t know why we mixed those two up.
In reality, studying nature isn’t always the same as preserving it. You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, and you can’t write a paper without ending lives, as the following stories show.
Climate Scientists Killed the World’s Oldest Animal
In 2007, British scientists were poking around the waters of Iceland, searching for evidence of exactly how the world has changed over the last few centuries. They fished up a bunch of quahog clams, planning to examine them for historical mineralization, old diaries, etc. A quick pop in the freezer killed the clams, keeping them from complaining during later review.
Then the scientists opened the clams up. They counted the rings in the shells, and since a clam should gain one ring each year, this told them how hold each was. One of the specimens had 405 rings, which would make it the oldest clam ever recorded. In fact, that made it the longest-lived recorded animal of any kind — with the possible exception of coral, but coral barely count as animals. They named this dead quahog Ming, because it had been alive during the Ming Dynasty.
Later analysis showed that estimate of the age had been wrong. Ming was actually older still, as it was 507 years old. This necessitated no name change, though, as the Ming Dynasty lasted quite a while.
The story of Ming’s death distressed many people, whose anger made no sense at all, according to the scientists. People kill clams all the time, the scientists noted, and gobble them up. The clams you eat in chowder may also be centuries old, or possibly even older than Ming.
We Killed the Oldest Tree, Trying to See How Old It Was
After news of Ming’s death came out, a rumor circulated that the scientists had killed it specifically in the process of measuring how old it was. That didn’t really happen. However, we’ve got another story in which scientists really did kill an organism while dating it, and this specimen had Ming’s age beat 10 times over.
When we say “dating,” we mean measuring the age. No scientist was romantically involved with the research subject, which was a bristlecone pine tree. Much like clams, only more famously, a tree can be dated by counting its rings. The process is a little more complicated than just counting, actually, since rings may not exactly match up with the calendar. It also doesn’t have to involve chopping the tree down. You can instead remove a sample of wood, using a tool called an incremental borer. But when Donald R. Currey dated this pine in 1963, he did in fact cut the tree down, killing it and leaving only the stump.
Exactly why Currey cut the whole tree down, well, we have conflicting stories about that, ranging from a series of borers comically getting stuck in the obstinate tree to the man just following orders. Either way, it ended with him counting those rings and finding the tree was older than the already-old 3,000 years people expected. It was 5,000 years old, older than the bristlecone pine previously known as the world’s oldest. We’d named that tree Methuselah, after the oldest guy in the Bible. We named this one Prometheus, not because the mythological Prometheus was known for his age but because “Methuselah” was already taken.
At 5,000 years old, Prometheus wasn’t just the oldest bristlecone but the oldest tree and indeed the oldest organism of any kind. Again, there are possible exceptions depending on your definition of “organism,” but if we exclude stuff that reproduces via cloning, like germs, the award goes to Prometheus. The old tree did not go quietly. Fred Solace, a forest technician, tried picking up some of the tree’s wood afterward, got tired, said “Oh God,” had a heart attack and died.
Another Old Tree Was Killed by an Anti-Logging Protestor
Prometheus was (at the time) the oldest tree ever discovered. Our next tree, named Kiidk'yaas, wasn’t nearly as old, but it was still known as “ancient tree” by the Haida people of British Columbia. According to their mythology, the tree had once been a boy. As he fled his village, his grandfather warned him not to turn back and look, but he did so, and was punished by being turned into a tree. That’s a weirdly common thing to happen in myths — see also Lot’s wife and Orpheus.
In 1997, a forest engineer named Grant Hadwin cut Kiidk'yaas down with a chainsaw. His motive: He wanted to protest the logging industry and save trees. We don’t know exactly how he thought outrage from this incident would translate to action against the logging industry, but we could say the same thing about most environmental activism.
While we’re talking about trees, we have one honorable mention story for you. In 2019, Florida woman, Sara Barnes, curled up in one of the world’s oldest trees, a 3,500-year-old Cypress known as The Senator. She lit a fire in there, so she could smoke meth in comfort, and the fire killed the tree. Wood is flammable, apparently.
It’s not certain that Barnes was a scientist, but given her familiarity with meth, we can’t rule that possibility out.
The Smithsonian Killed the Last Known Elephant Seals
In the 19th century, the population of elephant seals plummeted. Sealers hunted them in large numbers, not chiefly for their meat or their skins but for their blubber. An adult male could yield 200 pounds of oil, which you could burn in lamps just as you could whale oil. You could also use it as a lubricant — on your harness, for example, or possibly for more intimate activities.
Hunters killed so many seals that by the end of the century, almost a decade went by without anyone spying a single one of them. Then in 1892, a Smithsonian expedition led by naturalist Charles Haskins Townsend spotted a colony of eight seals on an island. They killed seven of them. Such rare specimens needed to be secured.
Fortunately, people were wrong about those being the last elephant seals. The species bounced back, and today, they’re not classified as threatened at all. We can’t say the same about all such endangered animals, however...
RIP to the Great Auk
The great auk was another animal hunted for its oil, as for its feathers, which made for comfy pillows. Collectors also prized its eggs. When hunters (or “eggers”) went searching, they made it a point to check whether each prospective egg contained an embryo. That sounds like a conservationist approach. Only, the strategy was to take unfertilized eggs and smash fertilized ones.
After years of ineffective protection, the species was just about wiped out. Then, in 1835, word came of a colony of 50 birds on an isle named Geirfuglasker. This was an island in Iceland, which once again proves to be a haven for creatures past their prime. Museums dispatched representatives to Geirfuglasker to quickly kill the auks, so the museums would have auk skins to display once the species went extinct.
The absolute last auk sighting happened a few years after that. This time, the sailors were Icelandic but the island was Scottish. Jon Brandsson, Sigurdur Islefsson and Ketil Ketilsson spotted a pair of birds and one egg. John and Sigurdur strangled the birds, while Ketil stomped on the egg with his boot. They may not have known this was the last auk egg. If they knew, we’re sure they’d have carefully picked it up, and used it to make an omelet.