By James Dyke
19 June 2015
(The Conversation) – We are currently witnessing the start of a mass extinction event the likes of which have not been seen on Earth for at least 65 million years. This is the alarming finding of a new study published in the journal Science Advances.
The research was designed to determine how human actions over the past 500 years have affected the extinction rates of vertebrates: mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians. It found a clear signal of elevated species loss which has markedly accelerated over the past couple of hundred years, such that life on Earth is embarking on its sixth greatest extinction event in its 3.5 billion year history.
This latest research was conducted by an international team lead by Gerardo Ceballos of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Measuring extinction rates is notoriously hard. Recently I reported on some of the fiendishly clever ways such rates have been estimated. These studies are producing profoundly worrying results.
However, there is always the risk that such work overestimates modern extinction rates because they need to make a number of assumptions given the very limited data available. Ceballos and his team wanted to put a floor on these numbers, to establish extinction rates for species that were very conservative, with the understanding that whatever the rate of species loss has actually been, it could not be any lower.
This makes their findings even more significant because even with such conservative estimates they find extinction rates are much, much higher than the background rate of extinction – the rate of species loss in the absence of any human impacts.
Here again, they err on the side of caution. A number of studies have attempted to estimate the background rate of extinction. These have produced upper values of about one out of every million species being lost each year. Using recent work by co-author Anthony Barnosky, they effectively double this background rate and so assume that two out of every million species will disappear through natural causes each year. This should mean that differences between the background and human driven extinction rates will be smaller. But they find that the magnitude of more recent extinctions is so great as to effectively swamp any natural processes. [more]
ABSTRACT: The oft-repeated claim that Earth’s biota is entering a sixth “mass extinction” depends on clearly demonstrating that current extinction rates are far above the “background” rates prevailing in the five previous mass extinctions. Earlier estimates of extinction rates have been criticized for using assumptions that might overestimate the severity of the extinction crisis. We assess, using extremely conservative assumptions, whether human activities are causing a mass extinction. First, we use a recent estimate of a background rate of 2 mammal extinctions per 10,000 species per 100 years (that is, 2 E/MSY), which is twice as high as widely used previous estimates. We then compare this rate with the current rate of mammal and vertebrate extinctions. The latter is conservatively low because listing a species as extinct requires meeting stringent criteria. Even under our assumptions, which would tend to minimize evidence of an incipient mass extinction, the average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 114 times higher than the background rate. Under the 2 E/MSY background rate, the number of species that have gone extinct in the last century would have taken, depending on the vertebrate taxon, between 800 and 10,000 years to disappear. These estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity over the last few centuries, indicating that a sixth mass extinction is already under way. Averting a dramatic decay of biodiversity and the subsequent loss of ecosystem services is still possible through intensified conservation efforts, but that window of opportunity is rapidly closing.