September 28, 2010
"This study confirms what we already suspected, that plants are under threat and the main cause is human induced habitat loss," Stephen Hopper, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said in a statement. "In order to answer crucial questions like how fast are we losing species and why, and what we can do about it, we need to establish a baseline so that we have something against which to measure change. The Sampled Red List Index for Plants does exactly that by assessing a large sample of plant species that are collectively representative of all the world's plants."
The list, coordinated by the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), is in direct response to the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity and the 2010 Biodiversity Target, which presented a goal to stem the loss of biodiversity by this year. However, officials freely admit that nations failed on this goal. Nations are set to meet in mid-October in Naguya, Japan to discuss what comes next. Nearly all of the world's nations are behind the treaty expect one notable absentee: the US has signed the treaty, but failed to ratify it in congress.
"The 2020 biodiversity target that will be discussed in Nagoya is ambitious, but in a time of increasing loss of biodiversity it is entirely appropriate to scale up our efforts. […] We cannot sit back and watch plant species disappear—plants are the basis of all life on earth, providing clean air, water, food and fuel," Hopper added. In prioritizing endangered species, plants have often been overshadowed by more 'popular' charismatic birds and mammals, yet ecologically plants underpin the world's ecosystems.
Plants have also provided humanity with many life-saving medicines including quinine, aspirin, morphine, as well as cancer and HIV-fighting drugs. Despite such discoveries the vast majority of plants remain untested for possible medicinal benefits: a study in 1996 found that less than one percent of plants in tropical rainforests had been screened. Many may already be lost to extinction.
In addition to finding that approximately 20 percent of the world's plants are threatened with extinction, the study also determined that scientists know too little about 33 percent of the world's plants to even make an assessment of their threat level.
Palm oil plantation in Indonesia with forest in the background: habitat loss is the primary cause of the world's endangered plant species. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
No one knows how many plant species exist in the world as every year brings to light new species (2,080 new plants were discovered in 2008 alone). Yet experts estimate that plant species probably number around 380,000. In contrast scientists have described 5,490 mammals, which are far better known than plants.
The world's extinction rate is currently estimated at 100 to 1,000 times higher than the background extinction rate (i.e. average extinction rate as determined by studying fossils), leading them to warn of a mass extinction that could rival the comet which destroyed the dinosaurs.
Citation: Brummitt, Neil et al. (2010) Sampled Red List Index for Plants. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London; International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
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Amphibians face mass extinction
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