Here's What Extinction Looks Like

Photos show extinct and endangered species in Field Museum's collection.

Xerces blue butterflies
Xerces blue butterflies.

Marc Schlossman

It all started one day at the museum.

Photographer Marc Schlossman was overwhelmed by so many extinct species he saw in the collection. Moved and concerned, he began photographing specimens of birds and butterflies, alligators, and tortoises. Schlossman spent a decade on the project, which focuses on endangered and extinct species and the threats they've faced.

He put the haunting images together for the book "Extinction," a collection of 82 vanished or threatened species.

Schlossman spoke to Treehugger about what it was like to photograph the lost species, the stories behind them, and what he hopes people take away from them.

Floreana Island tortoise shell
Floreana Island tortoise shell.

Marc Schlossman

Treehugger: What triggered the start of this project?

Marc Schlossman: The moment of inspiration for the project came on a tour of the zoological collections at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in 2008 and my 9-year-old twin sons were with me. We held these extinct species in our hands, seeing the feathers and bone structures of ivory-billed woodpeckers, Carolina parakeets, and passenger pigeons. And something inside me just said: Enough is enough.

What kind of world do we want to live in? The damage mankind is doing to ecosystems and the resulting decline in biodiversity has to stop. So I developed an idea to channel that outrage—something I realized I had been feeling for a really long time.

I approached the birds collection manager John Bates with the project proposal, he opened the doors to the collection—the specimens not on public display—and I started shooting birds. As with so many things in life, once you’re in, you’re in, and over the next 10 years I worked my way through the zoology and botany collections.

Carolina parakeet
Carolina parakeet.

Marc Schlossman

Before you started, how versed were you in endangered and extinct species?

My association with the museum started when I was in high school in the 1970s. I volunteered for a few summers in the mammals' collection in the museum, and one of those summers involved labeling mink skulls; just mink skulls for an entire summer ... and I thought: Just how overwhelmingly big is this place and how many specimens are in here? I found walking alone as a kid in those hallways, behind the scenes, with a nearly endless number of specimens very moving.

I had done many long canoe trips in central Canada also in my high school years and I went on to get a [Bachelor of Science] in wildlife biology at the University of Maine at Orono. I have just enough scientific vocabulary left to be able to talk to the collection managers! They are all research scientists in addition to their roles as curators. It has been very satisfying putting my lifelong interest in ecology and environmental issues together with my photography career in a useful way. 

Egyptian tortoise
Egyptian tortoise.

Marc Schlossman

What was it like when you were alone with these animals that no longer exist?

All the photographs were made in the Field Museum in Chicago. It was an incredible privilege to be granted access to these zoology and botany collections. On average just 1% of a museum’s specimens are on public display. I was given access to the 99% of the collections that no one sees unless you are museum staff or a visiting researcher. 

For some reason, at one point I was issued a "night in the museum" security pass with a little crescent moon icon on it that allowed me to stay later than even the staff and volunteers. I was working at the time in the amphibians and reptiles collection in the new Collections Resource Centre, a massive state-of-the-art storage facility located underground.

Once the collection managers said goodbye and went home, I was alone among densely packed shelves with thousands of jars filled with ethanol preserving frogs, toads, and snakes; boxes of bones, all labelled with when and where they were collected and each with a unique catalogue number; drawers with dozens of ivory-billed woodpeckers, California condors, and passenger pigeons, some collected as far back as the 1850s. What I felt in those corridors was awe. In awe of the hundreds of millions of years of evolution collected under one roof. And awe at the determination, energy and skill of all the people who have built these collections and maintained them.

Chinese alligator
Chinese alligator.

Marc Schlossman

When you photographed them, did you consider the stories behind each one?

I did a lot of research in the museum's online databases and discussed possible species for the list with collection managers before I arrived at the museum. I included many uncharismatic species to make the point that every species in an ecosystem is of equal importance. Then an interesting and unexpected thing happened when museum staff and visiting researchers walked by and saw me shooting specimens. They would ask about the work and say, "Hey, have you thought about this other species? It has a very interesting story." I would show up the next day and there would be a trolley with several new specimens to photograph. 

The images are there to capture the readers’ attention and get them to the nutritious part—the species’ stories. There we find out about the drivers causing the loss of biodiversity. Understanding these reasons for the decline is what this book is really about.

kakapo bird

Marc Schlossman

What do you hope that people take away from these images?

The book is important because we are poisoning ourselves and our planet by recklessly overexploiting natural resources as if there is no price to pay for unlimited economic growth. As individuals and as a species we are only as healthy as the ecosystems we live in and biodiversity loss is an indicator of ecosystem health. The natural or background extinction rate is 1-5 species per year; the current rate is at least 1,000 times that rate—a loss of roughly a dozen species per day. Nevertheless, the book highlights great work to conserve species and protect habitats.

When I present this work to another audience, I try to rethink how to present what the project is about, making it easier to understand, and recently I thought: We cannot do better than the subtitle of our book—"Our Fragile Relationship with Life on Earth."

I want us to engage in the stories of these species and the pressures they are under so we become more conscious and aware of the problems we have created—problems that all species face. For example, the accelerating loss of pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and moths threatens over half of the production of the crops we eat.

I produced a list of species whose stories collectively illustrate the accelerating loss of biodiversity. The images are there to capture our attention and get us to the species’ stories. There we find out about the drivers affecting biodiversity—overexploitation, pollution, climate change, the wildlife trade, invasive species, disease, and by far the greatest contributing factor, habitat loss. Understanding the causes of biodiversity loss is what the book is really about.

Of the 82 species in the book, just 23 are extinct. There are many conservation success stories and most of these species can be saved now with conservation efforts and habitat preservation. The book is an exercise in hope—otherwise, why would I do it? We have done a lot of damage but as David Attenborough said about the work required at this moment in our planet's history, ‘We know what to do, we just need the will to do it.' As stewards now of all ecosystems and therefore of all species, what other choice do we have? 


Marc Schlossman

Can you tell us a little about your background and what else you like to train your lens on?

I got a diploma in photojournalism from the London College of Printing (now the LCC) and having grown up in Chicago, that year in London was an amazing introduction to the city. I started working for newspapers and magazines and assisted various photographers, learning about lighting, and started getting into corporate work and shooting stock. Most of my work is on location but I'm happy in the studio too. I work for charities, NGOs, and INGOs, and my best work is grounded in where I started—documentary and photojournalism.