Author’s Note: Back in July, I had the opportunity to present some research on biodiversity archives and species extinction at ASLE and AESS’s Biennial Conference. Since my actual presentation and our subsequent roundtable discussion were only open to conference registrants, I wanted to take this opportunity to share an extended version of my presentation with you.
Defining The Animal Archive
Before I dive into these different case studies, I feel that it’s worth explaining what I mean when I use the phrase “animal archive.” These kinds of archives are comprised of physical and/or digital collections of preserved specimens, biological data, and other information pertaining to different species. Some of the archives I’ll be discussing have institutional backing, others created by concerned peoples or groups to study various species, and there are others that have become accidental records of biodiversity throughout history.
I will be focusing specifically on archives that track past, present, and future animal extinctions, either as their central subject of study or an unintended consequence of their long-term collecting. Beyond looking at the sheer volume of this data collection and the biological materials that comprise these archives, I’m interested in how these stories of extinction are told and how choices such as narrative writing, artistic interventions, and aesthetics end up eliciting emotional reactions from the people who interact with these archives. These archives emerged as ways to collect and share information about the world around us, yet the way these ecological histories are expressed offer us alternative ways of comprehending this moment of mass extinction.
Taxidermy As The First Extinction Archive
On the third floor of Paris’s natural history museum, the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution, you’ll find a dimly-lit room, far less visited than the newer exhibitions. Known as La Salle des Espèces Menacées et des Espèces Disparues (The Room of Endangered and Extinct Species), this gallery, one of the museum’s originals, houses 257 taxidermy specimens collected from the early 20th century.
What makes this room so peculiar — besides the fact that some of the animals appear in different states of taxidermic completion — is that all of these species have either been gone for over a century, are no longer found in the wild, or are still on the brink of extinction as they were many years ago. Visitors to this room have described it as an eerie one, with its dim lighting and dusty display cases. Among the animals you might see there are the Sumatran Tiger, the Cape Lion, the Saint Lucia Giant Rice Rat, the Martinique Muskrat, and the Xerces Blue Butterfly.
I bring this slightly creepy natural history museum gallery in as my first case study because it represents one of the earliest kinds of animal archives that emerged within the 19th and 20th centuries as Western colonial expansion and industrialization began to decimate ecosystems around the world. In her analysis of Carl Akeley and the African Hall at the AMNH titled “Teddy Bear Patriarchy,” Donna Haraway notes that taxidermists working at the time went on expeditions (oftentimes in nations actively being colonized) in order to kill and preserve certain prized species before they were hunted to extinction or displaced from their native habitats. While many of these early taxidermists were directly participating in the mass extinction of these animals (such as birds collected for their feathers or megafauna prized in big-game hunting), they believed that their taxidermic preservation would enable the animal’s legacy to live on even if wiped out by humanity. In a twisted logic of early environmental conservation, many, such as Akeley himself, believed that, if visitors were to see these specimens staged in the museum, that this was foster a greater desire to preserve habitats.
As flawed and infused with ideas of domination and extractivist supremacy as these views were, this notion that we should document, catalog, and preserve some part of, or an entire, endangered or extinct animal in order to share its story with concerned publics is one that continues to exist in environmental science research and conservation practices to this day.
Building Animal Archives Through Scientific Study
Housed in the San Diego Zoo is their Frozen Zoo program, a giant refrigerated room that houses over 10,000 living cell cultures, oocytes, sperm, and embryos from almost 1,000 taxa. Similar to the National Zoo’s various cryo-initiatives of milk banks, frozen collections, and genomic resource banks, the collection can be used by zookeepers to assist with the reproduction of endangered animals while also preserving the genetic information of extinct animals for generations to come. At this time, the Frozen Zoo has living cell lines from one known extinct bird: the po’ouli. It’s unclear how many other species in their collection are at risk of joining this shortlist.
In 1964, the IUCN Red List began as a database to track environmental conservation, creating a system of rankings to determine the status and risk levels of endangered and extinct animals around the world. Today, their website states about 28% of their assessed species (approximately 42,100) are actively being threatened with extinction. Over time, the entries in this archive have expanded beyond their standard green, yellow, or red indicators of threat. Each entry includes standard classification data such as taxonomy, a map of the area where the species has been recorded, and information such as documented threats, current population numbers, and other factors that determine its status. The project feels a little Sisyphean in its ambitious scope: not every entry is up-to-date, some may get more attention to others due to their cultural currency, some lack critical information about the role these species play in local or international trade or cultural practice, others have gaps indicative of bigger systemic issues in conservation research.
Biological materials aren’t the only specimens these institutions can collect. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library has been amassing an archive of photos, audio recordings, and videos of over 10,000 bird species since 1929. As populations have been threatened by habitat loss, hunting, and other impacts, this collection has become a repository for some of the last pieces of footage of bird species that are no longer here. Some of these species include the Bachman’s Warbler and the Kauai O’o who haven’t been seen in the wild since the 1980s and have been presumed extinct.
The Macaulay Library varies from the other scientific archives I’ve mentioned because they accept media submissions from the public and actively tap into networks of amateur audio technicians and birdwatchers out in the field to grow and fill gaps in their collection. Beyond this, the Macaulay Library regularly opens up their archive for use by researchers and artists alike, inviting new perspectives on their expansive recordkeeping of global bird biodiversity.
As Ursula Heise notes in her book, Imagining Extinction, the purely scientific quantification of endangerment alone is not always enough for the archives to be useful conservation tools. The incorporation of historical narratives and other kinds of supplementary information, such as social or cultural significance, offer a more nuanced view of how species operate within their environments and the the threats they face. As Heise observes, not every species is directly threatened by human activity and extinction itself can be a complex web of factors, not a linear event.
While these kinds of scientific efforts, Heise writes, are assumed to be ‘neutral,’ the kinds of species included in these databases and how they’re talked about can be influenced by broader cultural, political, and economic factors, ranging from missing data due to undervalued areas of study in academic research to internal conflicts over the status of an animal due to its trade value or cultural symbolism (even when those factors pushed them to the brink of extinction in the first place). Oftentimes, what’s as important as the content of these animal archives is what’s missing from them.
Art and Aesthetics in the Animal Archives
In 2013, the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory (MEMO) was proposed as the world’s first museum dedicated to extinction. The building was designed by Adjaye Associates for the Isle of Portland in England, a cavernous temple-like structure that would take visitors on a spiraling path through the stories of 860 species that have been declared extinct. Equal parts exhibition space and information center, MEMO was meant to invite personal contemplation, reflections on biodiversity, and inspire grief for those species lost to climate change and other man made impacts. In 2022, the project was rebranded and changed to Eden Portland, a kind of underground cathedral dedicated to scientific research, biodiversity, and the role of humanity in evolution and extinction. Now under construction, it’s unclear how much of MEMO’s original premise of confronting and preserving these narrative extinctions will be kept in the final design, but I do find the original concept of a dynamic extinction museum with meditative aesthetic elements to still be compelling.
Throughout the 19th century, the practice of gyotaku emerged in Japan as a way of documenting fish catches around the country. The printmaking process is simple: the caught fish were coated in a layer of ink and pressed into paper in order to preserve their image. While this was intended for fishermen to keep track of, and even show off, their catches prior to their being sold or eaten, they became an unintended historical tool for studying Japan’s marine biodiversity when scientists figured out that these prints could map fish populations from the period.
Now, researchers are using these byproducts of Japan’s commercial fishing industry to fill in gaps of scientific records from the time, enabling them to track the abundance or decrease of populations, or to discover new encounters with species that were thought to have gone extinct at an earlier time. Once an artistic display of power, these prints (like early photographs) have become an unintended fusion of aesthetic imagery with environmental historical record, visualizing the impacts of human consumption and changes to the seascape of these marine ecosystems.
Maya Lin’s What is Missing? (2009 — ) was designed to be a dynamic memorial, operating across both physical artworks and the digital web project of the same name. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll be focusing on her website, which viewers from around the world can visit and interact with. Lin’s stated goal of “What is Missing?” is to explore humanity’s ongoing relationship to the environment and visually represent the many complex journeys towards conservation and destruction, weaving together different anthropocentric and geological timescales from local regions to global webs into a rich multispecies odyssey of growth, interconnection, exploitation, and death.
Users on the site can click through different “paths” that chart these multi-linear environmental histories, yet this digital journey through this collection of non-human stories doesn’t just look to the past or present. Lin’s site is set up to include future-oriented narratives, offering opportunities for solutions-driven speculation, and you can participate directly in this memorial project by sharing your own memories of an animal or an ecosystem that has been lost or threatened. Where other biodiversity databases are concerned with a kind of apocalyptic end through statuses of endangerment and extinction, Lin’s project departs from this pessimistic sentiment, focusing on emotions such as hope and grief to spur viewers to take action.
In her essay on the “Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time,” extinction studies scholar Deborah Rose Bird reminds us that life and death are forever intertwined in evolutionary processes, and that time itself can take on embodied, abstracted forms rooted biology, culture, language, lifecycles, migratory patterns, and so on. These artistic interventions aren’t just telling stories of biodiversity over time, they are looking at the inverse: gaps, losses, complex interactions among species that lead to ends and transformations across generations, giving us the opportunity to witness how these legacies take on new meanings as they are inherited, revealing patterns of being and living in the world just as much as they do dying in it.
As these biodiversity archives grow, and become deliberate or unintended witnesses to destruction brought on or exacerbated by human actions, they find themselves caught between the drive to record what has already been lost in the past and present and efforts to record the species who will be threatened with future extinction. Yet the value of these animal archives goes beyond merely being a repository for collected specimens and data. These archives invite us into alternative imaginaries of interspecies futures, enabling us to bring the histories of long-gone specimens to the current moment and pass down those stories to the next generations. The project of these archives is forever incomplete; there will always be gaps, missing datasets, species that went extinct long before we decided to keep track of them. Those absences, too, play a critical role in this kind of archival understanding.
More artistic interventions (like visualizations of these extinct species, artist-led projects, platforms for public responses and submissions, or even more creative writing in descriptive data entry) offer opportunities for deeper connections to these lost species. When it comes to articulation of extinction and grappling with this magnitude of loss, grief has been, understandably, the dominant emotion that guides our interactions with these collections. The animal archives I’ve shared were not made simply to be mourned by the public or the researchers who use them. As these eco-historical records adapt to this apocalyptic world, these animal archives can give us new modes of navigating our entangled human and non-human futures.