Nature is in crisis, and it’s only getting worse. As species vanish at a rate not seen in 10 million years, more than 1 million species are currently on the brink.
Humans are driving this extinction crisis through activities that take over animal habitats, pollute nature and fuel global warming. A new global deal to protect nature agreed on Dec. 19 has the potential to help, and scientists are urging the world’s nations to ensure the deal is a success.
When an animal species is lost, a whole set of characteristics disappears along with it - genes, behaviors, activities and interactions with other plants and animals that may have taken thousands or millions - even billions - of years to evolve.
Whatever role that species played within an ecosystem is lost too, whether that’s pollinating certain plants, churning nutrients in soil, fertilizing forests or keeping other animal populations in check, among other things. If that function was crucial to the health of an ecosystem, the animals’ disappearance can cause a landscape to transform.
This is the case with “foundation species” that play a key part in structuring communities, such as corals, or “keystone species” like beavers that have a big impact on their environments, relative to their numbers.
Lose too many species and the results could be catastrophic, leading an entire system to collapse.
On the brink
There are some species that could soon be reduced to their own endlings. The Northern white rhino subspecies, the second-largest land mammal after elephants, has no hope of recovery after the last male died in 2018. Only a female and her daughter are left.
The world’s smallest porpoise - Mexico’s critically endangered vaquita - is down to just 18 individuals in the wild, as populations have been ravaged by fishing nets.
In the last five centuries, hundreds of unique animals have vanished across the world, such as the flightless Dodo bird killed off from the island of Mauritius in the late 1600s.
In many cases, humans were to blame - first by fishing or hunting, as was the case with South Africa’s zebra subspecies Quagga hunted to its end in the late 19th century - and more recently through activities that pollute, disrupt or take over wild habitats.
Before a species goes extinct, it may already be considered “functionally extinct” – with not enough individuals left to ensure the species survives. More recent extinctions have allowed humans to interact with some species’ last known individuals, known as “endlings”. When they go, that’s the end of those evolutionary lines.
Rabb’s Fringe-Limbed tree frog
Toughie was the last known individual of the Rabb’s Fringe-Limbed tree frog. All but a few dozen of his species had been wiped out by chytrid fungus in the wild in Panama. And eventually, Toughie was the last. In his enclosure at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, he was calling out in vain for a mate that didn’t exist. He died in 2016.
Martha’s story is a cautionary tale for conservation: in the 1850s there were still millions of passenger pigeons, but they were eventually hunted to extinction as conservation measures were taken only after the species was past the point of no return. Martha was the last individual of the passenger pigeon. She died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Pinta Island tortoise
Lonesome George, found in 1971, was Ecuador’s last Pinta Island tortoise. From the 17th century, some 200,000 individuals were hunted for their meat. Later, they struggled to compete for food after goats were brought to the island in the 1950s. Scientists tried to save the species through captive breeding before George died in 2012.
Benjamin was the world’s last known thylacine, a marsupial carnivore also known as the Tasmanian tiger. After Europeans arrived on the island, thylacine numbers quickly declined due to hunting, habitat loss and introduced disease. The animal was given protective status only two months before Benjamin died in 1936 in the Beaumaris Zoo in Tasmania.
These stories of endlings matter, scientists say, precisely because so many extinctions happen out of sight.
“Somewhere in the core of our humanity, we recognize these creatures, we’re touched by their story, and we feel compassion - and maybe also a moral compulsion - to help,” said Paula Ehrlich, president and CEO of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation.
The Northern white rhino isn’t just a part of the world, she said. It’s a world unto itself - its own ecosystem - mowing fields through grazing, fertilizing lands where it walks, having insects land on its skin, and then with birds feeding off those insects.
“Understanding everything that an animal is and does for the world helps us understand that we, too, are a part of nature - and we need nature to survive,” Ehrlich said.
Extinction over time
The endlings mentioned above are well-known because scientists realized that these species were declining and attempted to save them. Many other species just fade away in the wild.
Scientists count 881 animal species as having gone extinct since around 1500, dating to the first records held by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – the global scientific authority on the status of nature and wildlife. That’s an extremely conservative estimate for species extinction over the last five centuries, though, as it represents only the cases resolved with a high degree of certainty.
If we include animal species that scientists suspect might be extinct, that number shoots up to 1,473. The bar is high for declaring a species extinct – a sobering task that scientists are already reluctant to do.
“It’s hard to prove the negative, to prove you can’t find it,” said Sean O’Brien, an ecologist who heads the NatureServe nonprofit working to establish definitive data on North American species. “And it’s emotional. A botanist doesn’t want to declare it extinct because it feels like a failure.” So scientists might take longer trying to find the species before making the call.
Among terrestrial vertebrates, or land animals with a backbone, 322 species have been declared extinct since 1500. Add in the number of possibly extinct species and the tally comes to 573.
For moisture-loving amphibians, vulnerable to both pollution and drought, things are looking particularly bleak - with the extinction rate escalating over the last few decades. Only 37 species have been declared extinct with a high degree of certainty since 1500. But scientists suspect more than 100 others have disappeared over the last 30-40 years, according to a 2015 study in the journal Science Advances.
Losing hundreds of species over 500 or so years may not seem significant when there are millions more still living on the planet. But in fact, the speed at which species are now vanishing is unprecedented in the last 10 million years.
“We are losing species now faster than they can evolve,” O’Brien said.
The number of vertebrates that have gone extinct over the last 100 years should have taken 800 - 10,000 years
Plenty of animals have gone extinct naturally or due to causes unrelated to human activity. In a healthy environment, as species die off naturally, new species evolve – and an evolutionary balance is maintained.
This turnover relies on what scientists consider a normal or background extinction rate.
But when the extinction rate jumps so high that more than 75% of the world’s species go extinct within the relatively short time frame of less than 2 million years, this is considered a mass extinction event.
That’s happened five times over the last half-billion years, which we know through studying Earth’s fossil record - with layers upon layers of sediment having buried the remains of animals over time. When a layer with a large and diverse number of animals is found, scientists can see that a mass die-off occurred.
Through other evidence in the geological record, researchers can help deduce what likely caused the die-off. For example, the Permian-Triassic extinction event some 250 million years ago – also known as the Great Dying – saw up to 96% of Earth’s species disappear. With the record showing vast lands were covered in lava, while clouds of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide caused acid rain and global warming, scientists theorize that volcanic activity likely caused the wipeout.
And with the planet’s last mass extinction about 66 million years ago, when about 76% of all life forms including dinosaurs vanished, scientists have figured out that volcanic activity had again increased global temperatures before an asteroid slammed into the planet, causing superheating followed by rapid cooling – pushing already-stressed species over the edge.
Scientists warn we have entered a sixth mass extinction. And with climate change, humans are now engineering conditions similar to those that drove past die-offs, scientists say.
Under a normal extinction rate scenario, it would have taken at least 800 years and up to 10,000 years for the high number of vertebrate extinctions that we’ve seen in the last century, according to the 2015 paper in Science Advances.
“Despite our best efforts, the extinction rate is still estimated to be 1,000 times higher than before humans entered the stage,” Ehrlich said. “At this rate, half will be gone by the end of the century.”
Unknown and still under threat
Animal species vulnerable to endangerment in the near future more than 40,000 species are threatened with extinction
As bad as it seems, scientists say the reality is likely even worse. Looking only at species extinctions doesn’t give the full picture, partly because scientists are so conservative in saying a species is gone. For example, even though Toughie was the last known individual of his kind, the IUCN lists his species still as “critically endangered, possibly extinct.”
More importantly, there is a vast reservoir of species that we have yet to discover. Scientists have identified some 1.2 million species in the world, but estimate there are about 8.7 million. That leaves roughly 7.5 million species that we think are out there but know nothing about – including whether or not they’re in trouble.
“Knowing what we do about the impact of climate change and habitat loss, it’s hard to imagine that thousands if not millions of species are not in the process of going extinct right now,” O’Brien said.
A look at the number of “threatened” species as well as population trends can offer more insight into the declining state of the world’s biodiversity.
Among terrestrial vertebrates, amphibians are in the most trouble, with over 40% of species threatened, many of them heading towards extinction. The golden toad, found in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, is the poster child of amphibian extinctions, not only because it was stunningly beautiful, but also because it was declared extinct only two decades after being described.
Species populations falling in numbers: nearly 50% of bird species that are considered not threatened are facing declines
The IUCN uses a range of categories to describe the state of a species, as a way of identifying which are in trouble and when to help. But a species being listed as “least concern” or “near threatened” doesn’t mean its populations are stable. African lions, for example, have been listed for decades as “vulnerable,” but their numbers dropped 43% in 1993-2014, when the last population data was available. The decline of one or more populations of a species can mark the start of a trend toward extinction.
The IUCN lists 4,898 species of terrestrial vertebrates – birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals – with declining populations as “least concern”: 3,337 birds, 287 reptiles, 819 amphibians, and 455 mammals.
Conservation gives hope
The extinction of up to 32 bird species and up to 16 mammal species were prevented due to conservation efforts between 1993 and 2020
As sobering as the situation may seem at a global scale, there are reasons for hope. The newly adopted Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework in December will guide global conservation efforts through the decade to 2030. Among other things, the deal envisions putting 30% of the planet’s land and sea areas under protection by decade’s end.
“It’s so overwhelming to think there are these species right on the edge,” O’Brien said. “But then the conservationists I work with remind me of how much people care.”
Between 1993 and 2020, conservation measures such as habitat restoration or captive breeding helped to prevent the extinction of up to 32 bird species and as many as 16 mammals worldwide, according to conservative estimates in a 2020 study published in the journal Conservation Letters.
Computers other technological advances – from apps that crowd-source citizen science data to programs for sequencing species’ genetic DNA – are helping scientists learn more about what’s in nature so they’re better able to help struggling species, and to understand what’s lost when they can’t.
“Science is democratizing the information for every country to know what it needs to do where,” said Ehrlich of the Wilson Foundation, which works to identify the best places in the world for protecting biodiversity and prioritizing nature. Before he died last year, Wilson himself advocated putting half the planet under conservation and estimated that would save 85% of the world’s species.
“We humbly need to do the best that we can to protect them now,” Ehrlich said, “until we understand more about the intricate web of life that sustains nature – and us, as a part of nature.”
Additional work by
Jitesh Chowdhury, Vijdan Kawoosa, Adolfo Arranz, Julia Wolfe, Matthew Weber and Simon Scarr
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List 2022