The sixth mass extinction on Earth

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Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., & Raven, P. H. (2020). Vertebrates on the brink as indicators of biological annihilation and the sixth mass extinction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(24), 13596-13602. [PDF] [Cited by]

The ongoing sixth mass species extinction is the result of the destruction of component populations leading to eventual extirpation of entire species. Populations and species extinctions have severe implications for [human] society through the degradation of ecosystem services. Here we assess the extinction crisis from a different perspective. We examine 29,400 species of terrestrial vertebrates, and determine which are on the brink of extinction because they have fewer than 1,000 individuals. There are 515 species on the brink (1.7% of the evaluated vertebrates). Around 94% of the populations of 77 mammal and bird species on the brink have been lost in the last century. Assuming all species on the brink have similar trends, more than 237,000 populations of those species have vanished since 1900. We conclude the human-caused sixth mass extinction is likely accelerating for several reasons. First, many of the species that have been driven to the brink will likely become extinct soon. Second, the distribution of those species highly coincides with hundreds of other endangered species, surviving in regions with high human impacts, suggesting ongoing regional biodiversity collapses. Third, close ecological interactions of species on the brink tend to move other species toward annihilation when they disappear—extinction breeds extinctions. Finally, human pressures on the biosphere are growing rapidly, and a recent example is the current coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic, linked to wildlife trade. Our results reemphasize the extreme urgency of taking much-expanded worldwide actions to save wild species and humanity’s crucial life-support systems from this existential threat.

The species extinctions that define the current crisis are, in turn, based on the massive disappearance of their component populations, mostly since the 1800s. The massive losses that we are experiencing are being caused, directly or indirectly, by the activities of Homo sapiens [humans]. They have almost all occurred since our ancestors developed agriculture, some 11,000 y ago. At that time, we numbered about 1 million people worldwide; now there are 7.7 billion of us, and our numbers are still rapidly growing. As our numbers have grown, humanity has come to pose an unprecedented threat to the vast majority of its living companions.

Today, species extinction rates are hundreds or thousands of times faster than the “normal” or “background” rates prevailing in the last tens of millions of years. The recent United Nations report on biodiversity and ecosystem services estimates that a quarter of all species face extinction, many within decades. When a species disappears, a wide range of characteristics is lost forever, from genes and interactions to phenotypes and behaviors.

Every time a species or population vanishes, Earth’s capability to maintain ecosystem services is eroded to a degree, depending on the species or population concerned. The effects of extinctions will worsen in the coming decades, as losses of functional units, redundancy, and genetic and cultural variability change entire ecosystems. Humanity needs the life support of a relatively stable climate, flows of fresh water, agricultural pest and disease-vector control, pollination for crops, and so on, all provided by functional ecosystems.”

Questions? Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu).

2 comments

  1. The importance of the information contained in this article cannot be overstated. THIS IS what will destroy all the species existing today including the human species. No doubt, the pandemic virus is only the beginning of a “global cleansing”, if you will, God’s wrath at a world gone haywire w/ decreasing appreciation for what we’ve been given by life itself on a planet that once had such great offerings and potential for all the species, including the human kind. This message must be disseminated to every part of the globe and we all must do our part, recognizing it’s inevitability if we continue on the same path that we’ve so selfishly traverse today. Thank you for continuing this “wake-up call” – let’s hope many others will “arise” to the occasions and answer the call

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