Science | June 2, 2020 9:31 am

Report: Mass Extinction Picking Up Speed

The next 20 years could be environmentally devastating

Harlequin frog
The harlequin frog is one of many species threatened with extinction.
Brian Gratwicke/Creative Commons

Our planet has experienced a number of mass extinctions, leading to substantial changes in the planet’s environment and biodiversity. Alarmingly, we are presently in the midst of what’s considered to be the sixth mass extinction — though there’s some debate over whether we’re actually in the seventh such event.

All of that would be alarming enough on its own. A new article by Damian Carrington at The Guardian offers further cause for alarm, however. Why? Because apparently the sixth extinction is picking up speed:

More than 500 species of land animals were found to be on the brink of extinction and likely to be lost within 20 years. In comparison, the same number were lost over the whole of the last century. Without the human destruction of nature, even this rate of loss would have taken thousands of years, the scientists said.

What are some of the animals at risk of vanishing from the planet completely?

The land vertebrates on the verge of extinction, with fewer than 1,000 individuals left, include the Sumatran rhino, the Clarión wren, the Española giant tortoise and the harlequin frog.

Making matters worse is the interconnectedness of these extinctions. If one species dies off, another that relies upon it might follow suit, leading to a chain effect that could be catastrophic. The article cites the example of Stellar’s sea cows, which went extinct after sea otters were hunted in large enough numbers that they no longer consumed sea urchins — which, in turn, ate the kelp on which the sea cows subsisted.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t hope: Carrington quotes WWF director of science Mark Wright, who cites one area where improvement could take place. “If we stop the land-grabbing and devastating deforestation in countries such as Brazil, we can start to bend the curve in biodiversity loss and climate change,” Wright said. The window to make real changes is still there, but it’s shrinking by the day.

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