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Will the Next Extinction Include Us?

There have been five mass extinctions on the Earth in the past four billion years, and the last one 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs. Biologists have long speculated that if humans become extinct, insects will become the next dominant species. Now they say we're about to have a sixth extinction, but it won't be the end of us?not yet, anyway. Instead, we're about to lose many of our butterflies, birds and plants. But just as human beings evolved by learning how to survive the ice age, some insects show evidence that they can grow bigger brains when they need to.

Anil Ananthaswamy writes in New Scientist that British scientists say that species of insects are becoming extinct at a increasingly high rate. They first noticed a decline in bird species that has been blamed on pollution and the spread of suburbs, which destroy the habitat of some birds. But now they've noticed that insects, which make up half of the species on Earth, are disappearing even faster.

"If we can extrapolate that pattern of the British butterflies to other British insects, and indeed to invertebrates across the planet, we are obviously looking at a very serious bio-diversity crisis," says one researcher. 71% of butterfly species have decreased over the last 20 years, as well as 56% of birds and 28% of plants.

"We found strong evidence that the decline in the species richness of grasslands within the U.K. was linked to nitrogen pollution," says researcher Carly Stevens. Nitrogen pollution is caused by burning fossil fuels and from certain types of fertilizer. The UN?s Mark Collins says, "Evidence of a global extinction crisis has come into stark focus with these important results."

Some insect species will survive, however, and one of these may be a special kind of wasp with a brain that grows bigger as it solves bigger problems. "The amount of change is striking," said psychologist Sean O'Donnell.

Polybia aequatorialis wasps live in colonies of 2,000 or more and as the wasps age, they learn to perform different, more complex jobs. Workers start at the bottom by doing tasks in the interior of the nest and later move up to working on the exterior. Finally, they leave the nest to look for food and building materials. O'Donnell says, "What is happening is that the complexity of the tasks the insects engage in is increasing." In order to do these increasingly complex tasks, their brains actually grow larger.

If human brains got bigger as we face increasingly bigger problems, and we were able to cooperate to the same extent socially, we might be able to come up with solutions to problems like global warming, nuclear proliferation and potential asteroid impacts, which will probably eventually wipe us out in another major extinction.

If we have to go, let's hope we at least get to hear angelic music. This beauty is now on sale!

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