Biodiversity Lessons from Star Trek

Thomas Morris

Ok, I admit it… I’m a nerd. This article is titled “Biodiversity Lessons from Star Trek”, but I don’t mean the recent resurgence of the popular series… I mean the lessons from it’s early days with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. I’m talking The Original Series (1966 - 1969) and the six films that came off this series. Read on for some things I observed and how some recent biodiversity research applies…

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Pixabay

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Pixabay

I recently watched Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where (spoiler alert!) the usual band of officers sets off on some crazy stunt to save 23rd century planet earth. The unlikely items they need to save the planet are… Humpback whales! The problem is, 23rd century earth hasn’t got any Humpback whales as they were hunted to extinction in the 21st century. Therefore, the team travel back to 1986 San Francisco to find two whales, beam them aboard into a makeshift tank, to take them forwards to the 23rd century. I’ll leave you to figure out the rest...

This film hit a little too close to home for me. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species regularly publishes reports analysing global populations of animals and placing them in categories that reflect a species status. Species of “Least Concern” are those that seem to be doing well. Compare these to “Critically endangered” or “Extinct in the Wild”, and I know where I’d rather be as a species. 28,000 of the 100,000 species assessed are threatened with extinction - and, unfortunately, these numbers are continually growing as more and more species are assessed by the experts.

A group of species especially threatened are cartilaginous fish. Recently, the IUCN experts released a report outlining the status of ‘rhino rays’ - wedge fishes and giant guitarfishes. These strange half-shark half-ray fish have experienced declines of over 80% in the past 30 - 40 years. The reason: intense and unregulated exploitation, with their fins fetching US$ 1,000 per kilogram (dried weight) in international markets. The outlook for these species is bleak, but the reports produced by the IUCN provide crucial evidence for governments and conservation organizations when arguing for stricter trade regulations. 

(You can read why not having sharks is a problem from a previously published article.)

Whitespotted Wedgefish (Rhynchobatus djiddensis) in Protea Banks, South Africa. Photo by Matthew D. Potenski ( IUCN website )

Whitespotted Wedgefish (Rhynchobatus djiddensis) in Protea Banks, South Africa. Photo by Matthew D. Potenski (IUCN website)

Another piece of research to come out recently was a groundbreaking Nature article. Through an incredible global effort of 152 authors, and using a big-data approach, the authors used satellite tracking to monitor the movements of pelagic sharks and global fishing fleets, to measure their overlap. The conclusions show that 24% of the mean monthly space used by sharks falls under the footprint of pelagic longline fisheries. This is incredibly problematic as the major threat to pelagic shark species is long line fisheries.

Through the efforts of IUCN experts assessing the populations of animals and the incredible efforts of scientists globally to assess the major threats to these animals, history will show that we knew about the impacts we are having on these top predators. Our increasing access to large data sets and the use of new and technologically advanced analysis techniques are not only out of this world, but are providing us with insight into what’s happening with these species. 

But, what Star Trek showed me is that back in 1986, they knew that whaling was having a negative effect on humpback whale populations, and in less than a century, these large and charismatic species were gone. Never to be seen again… except for when a starship came back in time from the 23rd century and brought a pair of whales back with them. And the only reason we did that was because our planet was under threat and our very existence as the human race was threatened. 

Isn’t that, in itself, a bit egotistical? 

Rising Tides is a series focussing on the current threats facing our ocean, how these are being tackled and what you can do to help