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The end of the world is nighThe Future of LifeEdward O WilsonLittle Brown 1899 pp230What Evolution IsErnst MayrWeidenfeld Nicholson 1499 pp318Small but perfectly formed South Americas dart frogs are some of evolutions strangest by-products They come in a vivid array of reds oranges and greens and are so tiny they could perch on a fingernailYet these little popinjays are the rainforests most feared denizens for each secretes poisons that can flatten even the largest predator Take Colombias wonderfully named Phyllobates horribilis Each one has enough toxin to kill 10 men a fact exploited by Choco tribesmen who rub their blow-gun darts very carefully over phyllobates when preparing for battleThen there is Equadors Epipedobates tricolor which exudes a cocktail of different chemicals including one that medical researchers John Daly and Charles Myers discovered was a powerful opium-like painkiller but which seemed to lack addictive side effectsAnd thereby hangs a tale Having stumbled on this exceptional amphibian emission Daly and Myers needed more samples to develop their research So they returned to the little frogs homeland glade only to find it had been turned into a banana plantation Thus a pharmacological miracle seemed to have perished forever at the hands of the fruit farmer Only the subsequent discovery of a separate distant epipedobates lair saved the dayThe world was lucky but it has not been in thousands possibly millions of other cases when we have bulldozed cemented flooded dynamited or burned unique environment after unique environment taking each ones remarkable but usually unstudied occupants with it As Wilson says We are chipping away at the miracles around usEcological horror stories are ten-a-penny of course and their capacity to alarm was long ago neutralised by overuse This is the litany that is disparaged by Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg in his anti-green diatribe The Sceptical Environmentalist which so delighted right-wing commentators last year For a few months they nearly had us believing everything was tickety-boo on planet
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