Earth's Sixth Mass Extinction Of Wildlife Is Continuing To Accelerate

Theodore Roosevelt, with gun stands beside a dead elephant he hunted and killed during his African trip of 1910. Everett Historical/Shutterstock

The current sixth mass extinction event – a level of wildlife loss not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs – is driving species loss at an ever-accelerating rate.

New research has indicated that the global loss of land-living vertebrates is skyrocketing at an accelerating speed with hundreds of species now teetering on the precipice of extinction. Reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers from Stanford University show how thousands of species around the world and under threat of extinction from human-driven pressures, including population growth, habitat destruction, the wildlife trade, pollution, and climate change.

They found at least 515 species of terrestrial vertebrates have fewer than 1,000 individuals remaining and could face extinction within the coming two decades, the majority of which live in tropical and subtropical regions in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Examples of these animals include the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), the Española Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis hoodensis), and the Harlequin frog; weird and wonderful creatures that have just a small handful of individuals left. 

For context, 543 land vertebrate species went extinct over the course of the whole 20th century. 

One of the study’s main findings was the domino effect that extinction can have on other species – “extinction breeds extinctions,” in the words on the study. Up to 84 percent of species with populations under 5,000 individuals live in the same areas as species with populations under 1,000, which the researchers suggest is evidence of a chain reaction whereby one struggling species can destabilize the wider ecosystem and its inhabitants. This domino effect appears to be especially noticeable in tropical regions across the world.

Cumulative vertebrate species recorded as extinct or extinct in the wild from a previous 2015 study: (A) a highly conservative estimate. (B) a conservative estimate.  Ceballos et al/Science Advances 2015 

The planet is currently facing a level of biological annihilation not seen in at least 65 million years, when the catastrophic asteroid event that oversaw the extinction of the dinosaurs occurred. All of Earth’s five previous extinction events were created by astronomical or geological forces, such as climate change driven by volcanic eruptions or meteor collisions, but this current extinction is almost totally fueled by human activity.

The report concludes by saying the ongoing sixth mass extinction event should be considered one of the “most serious environmental threats to the persistence of civilization.”

“When humanity exterminates populations and species of other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system," Paul Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies, emeritus, at the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences and a senior fellow, emeritus, at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, explained in a statement

"The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a national and global emergency for governments and institutions, equal to climate disruption to which it is linked."

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