Current Biology: The Anthropocene Special Issue

Current Biology. 2019  Vol. 29, No. 19: R942–R1054.
This special issue of Current Biology includes a collection of Features, Reviews, Primers, Essays and Quick guides on a wide range of topics surrounding various detrimental impacts of human activity on the biosphere.

For most biologists, inhabiting the Anthropocene also means working in it. There are very few topics in the life sciences that are not confronted with the impacts of the Anthropocene. The prestigious journal Current Biology has recently published a special volume that shows how many biological disciplines are affected by and respond to the changes that the Anthropocene is bringing. Some of the topics are very close to home for me, but more on that later.

The almost two dozen articles cover many different topics. Some of the papers are editorials by staff scientists working for Current Biology, but most are scholarly articles by experts in the field.  These are a great resource for the public. For example, a short feature by Martin provides an overview of plastics and microplastics in the environment. We have looked at plastic from a number of perspectives in recent posts on this blog. Another feature by Gross is on urbanization, a topic that this blog has covered extensively.

Hunting wooly mammothUnsurprisingly, several papers deal with extinction. This topic has received a lot of attention recently, at least partly to the coverage of the massive decline in insects and birds documented by several studies. The essay by Goulson provides a great discussion of the topic. A more general paper by Turvey and Crees looks at ways humans have caused or facilitated extinctions. This is deeply rooted in human history with early humans starting to modify their environments, but the pace of extinction has accelerated to an unbelievable speed since the beginning of the Anthropocene. As we tear through the fabric of ecological networks, I wonder if and when we will reach a tipping point and enter a death spiral of species extinction. The concept of tipping points and rapid change is covered in another review paper in the volume by Botta and colleagues from a Danish group.

Another article, by Edwards and colleagues, focuses especially on tropical rainforests and what we need to do to conserve them and their amazing biodiversity. They point to the complexity of conservation in the political and socio-economic arena and make it clear that conservation must be done with the local people, not against them.

At the same time, there is an evolutionary response to human-induced change, but we know very little about it. Using a case study of an Australian lizard, Catullo and colleagues discuss mechanisms by which plants and animals might be able to respond to changing temperatures. They also urge more experimental studies on the topic.

Maybe one of the most pressing issues in the Anthropocene is that we will have to change the ways we feed ourselves. This is covered in several articles, in particular, a great essay by Poppy and Baverstock. They reflect on the Food-Water nexus and connect food production and economics. They also urge quick action and point to a few solutions that need to be researched soon, including the role of CRISPR Cas9 in the manipulation of food plants.

Finally, two papers cross over into neighboring fields. One is by Clayton who flips the question and asks not how do humans affect the living world, but how the Anthropocene (and the news about it) affect us humans? The other one is by Lamba, who connects AI and machine learning with conservation in a pretty novel way.

GuppiesThe one paper that is very close to my own work is the one on threats to freshwater biodiversity by Dudgeon. This is what I work on in the Caribbean and one of the many frustrations is that once invasive species are established, they are there to stay. Among other things I work on invasive guppies (yes, the ones you know from the pet store) and how they alter communities in tropical rivers. Guppies are very pretty, lovely pets, but also very successful invaders. In a short primer Mara also draws the line from pet to ecological disaster, but his examples are crasser: he explains the catastrophic role the Burmese python has in Florida. He also discussed what cats do to the local fauna by killing birds, amphibians, reptiles, and other wildlife.

Alexander von HumboldtI want to end with a bow to Alexander von Humboldt, the famous scientist from Prussia. He was born 250 years ago, and warned already in 1819 against the negative impact of deforestation (and, according to his latest biographer, Andrea Wulf, he foresaw the dangers of climate change). His observations from Lake Valencia in Venezuela showed that cutting down the surrounding trees had many bad consequences. Nowadays the lake serves as a reservoir and suffers from massive algae blooms.

Lake Valencia

Maybe we should have listened to these early warnings. But it seems that greed got in the way….

Ingo Schlupp (ORCID: is a Professor of Biology at the University of Oklahoma.

2 thoughts on “Current Biology: The Anthropocene Special Issue

  1. The term “greed” as Ingo uses it I don’t see primarily about greed in terms of making more money precisely. The greed is more about population growth I think. The two are intimately linked, no question, but if the number of people on Earth were a factor of ten less, then much of what we are talking about would not be necessary. Until very recently, nearly all people produced more offspring than the replacement number of 2. That of course is and likely will continue to change.

    Overall, the article by Martin on plastics is good and I recommend it. I thought the treatment of microplastics was particularly even-handed (nobody really knows, but could be really bad). Not stated in this article is the fact that it is not clear how our clothes’ composition are affecting microplastics (probably a future post!)

    If you do read the article, then there are two things that I want to point out.
    1) One word that was not correct in the summary (“We produce our own weight in plastic every year. Much of this is single-use packaging that often finds its way to the ocean where it causes harm to marine life that often finds its way to the ocean where it causes harm to marine life”). Single use packaging does not “often” find its way to the ocean; “rarely” would be correct. It is just that there is so much single use plastic that rarely is still a problem.
    2) “As in the case of climate change, many possible solutions are in hand but require the political will to implement them.” It is not just about political will; in both cases there are economic and environmental costs associated with solutions. It is important that we consider the tradeoffs before embarking down a certain path.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Brian! I am looking forward to another post from you on microplastics. This is a real big concern for biologists and we realize that we know very little about them, still.
    You made me think more about the word “greed”. There seems to be an important intersection of the effects humans have on the environment, causing the Anthropocene, and how we treat the environment. Greed may be part of it, but maybe it is better to say that our current approach is not sustainable. I think there are many elements to the current situation, ranging from the way the worldwide economy is organized to human psychology. What remains for me is how prescient Humboldt was. But was he the only one?

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