Andinobates cassidyhornae is a very recently described poison dart frog from the Western Andes of Colombia. It is typical of recently described species in having a very small geographical range and being in an area where habitat loss is a major threat to its existence. Photo by: Luis Mazariegos.
Current extinction rates are at the high end of past predictions, according to a new paper published today in Science, however conservation efforts combined with new technologies could make a big difference.
Past research has largely pinned current extinction rates at 100 to 1,000 times the background rate, which is the average rate of extinction as teased out from the fossil record. However, new research led by Stuart Pimm of Duke University argues that humans have pushed the current extinction rate to 1,000 times the historical rate.
“Humanity has driven rates of extinction even higher than we had previously thought,” co-lead author Clinton Jenkins with the Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas in Brazil explained to mongabay.com. “However, today we know better than ever which parts of the world are most important to protect for preventing future species extinctions, and new technologies are helping to monitor and learn about threats in those areas.”
The study finds that it’s not so much that more species are going extinct than feared, but that extinction likely occurred even slower in the past then previously predicted. Using three different types of evidence—the fossil record, speciation rates, and diversification across family groups—the researchers estimated that only 0.1 extinctions occurred in the past on average for every million species years (MSY), instead of the more commonly cited one extinction per MSY.
Map shows the regions with the most threatened mammals. Map courtesy of Biodiversitymapping.org.
This means that instead of one species going extinct each year for every million species on Earth, only one species went extinct for every TEN million species on the planet annually in the past. Today, the researchers believe that around 100 species are vanishing each year for every million species, or 1,000 times their newly calculated background rate.
“The overarching driver of species extinction is human population growth and increasing per capita consumption,” states the paper. “How long these trends continue—where and at what rate—will dominate the scenarios of species extinction and challenge efforts to protect biodiversity.”
However, the scientists argue that ongoing conservation efforts and new technologies, including a massive increase in data, could stem global biodiversity loss.
“Online databases, smart phone apps, crowd sourcing and new hardware are making it easier to collect data on species. When combined with data on land-use change and the species observations from millions of amateur citizen scientists, they are increasingly allowing closer monitoring of the planet’s biodiversity and threats to it,” said Pimm. Notable online databases include Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the Ocean Biogeographic Information System, the Tree of Life, TimeTree, according to the paper. In addition, increasingly-popular tools such as conservation drones, genetic barcoding, photo sharing apps, and camera traps have made monitoring biodiversity much easier and cheaper.
“For our success to continue, however, we need to support the expansion of these technologies and develop even more powerful technologies for the future,” Pimm added.
Map shows the regions with the most threatened birds. Map courtesy of Biodiversitymapping.org.
With this massive influx of new data, scientists have been able not only to identify the world’s most biodiverse places, but also where that biodiversity is most threatened. These include the tropical Andes, the Atlantic Forest, Madagascar, and the islands of Southeast Asia, according to Jenkins.
“We know what the major problems are. We know where they are. It is not a mystery,” said Jenkins. “I can walk out my door and see areas of Atlantic Forest being restored and the species returning. I know that it is possible, because I see people doing it every day where I work. What is needed globally is greater political will and resources devoted to solving the problem.”
Map shows the regions with the most amphibian species. Map courtesy of Biodiversitymapping.org.
Map shows the regions with the most cone snail species. Map courtesy of Biodiversitymapping.org.
- Stuart L. Pimm, Clinton N. Jenkins, Robin Abell, Tom M. Brooks, John. L. Gittleman, Lucas N. Joppa, Peter. H. Raven, Callum. M. Roberts, and Joe O. Sexton. The Biodiversity of Species and Their Rates of Extinction, Distribution, and Protection. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1246752
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