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THE EXTINCTION CRISIS

It’s frightening but true: Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day [1]. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century [2].

Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us — humans. In fact, 99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities, primarily those driving habitat loss, introduction of exotic species, and global warming [3]. Because the rate of change in our biosphere is increasing, and because every species’ extinction potentially leads to the extinction of others bound to that species in a complex ecological web, numbers of extinctions are likely to snowball in the coming decades as ecosystems unravel.

Species diversity ensures ecosystem resilience, giving ecological communities the scope they need to withstand stress. Thus while conservationists often justifiably focus their efforts on species-rich ecosystems like rainforests and coral reefs — which have a lot to lose — a comprehensive strategy for saving biodiversity must also include habitat types with fewer species, like grasslands, tundra, and polar seas — for which any loss could be irreversibly devastating. And while much concern over extinction focuses on globally lost species, most of biodiversity’s benefits take place at a local level, and conserving local populations is the only way to ensure genetic diversity critical for a species’ long-term survival.

In the past 500 years, we know of approximately 1,000 species that have gone extinct, from the woodland bison of West Virginia and Arizona’s Merriam’s elk to the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, passenger pigeon and Puerto Rico’s Culebra parrot — but this doesn’t account for thousands of species that disappeared before scientists had a chance to describe them [4]. Nobody really knows how many species are in danger of becoming extinct. Noted conservation scientist David Wilcove estimates that there are 14,000 to 35,000 endangered species in the United States, which is 7 to 18 percent of U.S. flora and fauna. The IUCN has assessed roughly 3 percent of described species and identified 16,928 species worldwide as being threatened with extinction, or roughly 38 percent of those assessed. In its latest four-year endangered species assessment, the IUCN reports that the world won’t meet a goal of reversing the extinction trend toward species depletion by 2010 [5].

What’s clear is that many thousands of species are at risk of disappearing forever in the coming decades.

AMPHIBIANS

No group of animals has a higher rate of endangerment than amphibians. Scientists estimate that a third or more of all the roughly 6,300 known species of amphibians are at risk of extinction [6]. The current amphibian extinction rate may range from 25,039 to 45,474 times the background extinction rate [7].

Frogs, toads, and salamanders are disappearing because of habitat loss, water and air pollution, climate change, ultraviolet light exposure, introduced exotic species, and disease. Because of their sensitivity to environmental changes, vanishing amphibians should be viewed as the canary in the global coal mine, signaling subtle yet radical ecosystem changes that could ultimately claim many other species, including humans.

BIRDS

Birds occur in nearly every habitat on the planet and are often the most visible and familiar wildlife to people across the globe. As such, they provide an important bellwether for tracking changes to the biosphere. Declining bird populations across most to all habitats confirm that profound changes are occurring on our planet in response to human activities.

A 2009 report on the state of birds in the United States found that 251 (31 percent) of the 800 species in the country are of conservation concern [8]. Globally, BirdLife International estimates that 12 percent of known 9,865 bird species are now considered threatened, with 192 species, or 2 percent, facing  an “extremely high risk” of extinction in the wild — two more species than in 2008. Habitat loss and degradation have caused most of the bird declines, but the impacts of invasive species and capture by collectors play a big role, too.

FISH

Increasing demand for water, the damming of rivers throughout the world, the dumping and accumulation of various pollutants, and invasive species make aquatic ecosystems some of the most threatened on the planet; thus, it’s not surprising that there are many fish species that are endangered in both freshwater and marine habitats.

The American Fisheries Society identified 700 species of freshwater or anadromous fish in North America as being imperiled, amounting to 39 percent of all such fish on the continent [9]. In North American marine waters, at least 82 fish species are imperiled. Across the globe, 1,851 species of fish —  21 percent of all fish species evaluated —  were deemed at risk of extinction by the IUCN in 2010, including more than a third of sharks and rays.

INVERTEBRATES

Invertebrates, from butterflies to mollusks to earthworms to corals, are vastly diverse — and though no one knows just how many invertebrate species exist, they’re estimated to account for about 97 percent of the total species of animals on Earth [10]. Of the 1.3 million known invertebrate species, the IUCN has evaluated about 9,526 species, with about 30 percent of the species evaluated at risk of extinction. Freshwater invertebrates are severely threatened by water pollution, groundwater withdrawal, and water projects, while a large number of invertebrates of notable scientific significance have become either endangered or extinct due to deforestation, especially because of the rapid destruction of tropical rainforests. In the ocean, reef-building corals are declining at an alarming rate: 2008’s first-ever comprehensive global assessment of these animals revealed that a third of reef-building corals are threatened.

MAMMALS

Perhaps one of the most striking elements of the present extinction crisis is the fact that the majority of our closest relatives — the primates — are severely endangered. About 90 percent of primates — the group that contains monkeys, lemurs, lorids, galagos, tarsiers, and apes (as well as humans) — live in tropical forests, which are fast disappearing. The IUCN estimates that almost 50 percent of the world’s primate species are at risk of extinction. Overall, the IUCN estimates that half the globe’s 5,491 known mammals are declining in population and a fifth are clearly at risk of disappearing forever with no less than 1,131 mammals across the globe classified as endangered, threatened, or vulnerable. In addition to primates, marine mammals — including several species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises — are among those mammals slipping most quickly toward extinction.

PLANTS
Through photosynthesis, plants provide the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat and are thus the foundation of most life on Earth. They’re also the source of a majority of medicines in use today. Of the more than 300,000 known species of plants, the IUCN has evaluated only 12,914 species, finding that about 68 percent of evaluated plant species are threatened with extinction.

Unlike animals, plants can’t readily move as their habitat is destroyed, making them particularly vulnerable to extinction. Indeed, one study found that habitat destruction leads to an “extinction debt,” whereby plants that appear dominant will disappear over time because they aren’t able to disperse to new habitat patches [11]. Global warming is likely to substantially exacerbate this problem. Already, scientists say, warming temperatures are causing quick and dramatic changes in the range and distribution of plants around the world. With plants making up the backbone of ecosystems and the base of the food chain, that’s very bad news for all species, which depend on plants for food, shelter, and survival.

REPTILES

Globally, 21 percent of the total evaluated reptiles in the world are deemed endangered or vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN — 594 species — while in the United States, 32 reptile species are at risk, about 9 percent of the total. Island reptile species have been dealt the hardest blow, with at least 28 island reptiles having died out since 1600. But scientists say that island-style extinctions are creeping onto the mainlands because human activities fragment continental habitats, creating “virtual islands” as they isolate species from one another, preventing interbreeding and hindering populations’ health. The main threats to reptiles are habitat destruction and the invasion of nonnative species, which prey on reptiles and compete with them for habitat and food.

Black rhinoceros photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service