A new study has revealed that extinction rates for plants and animals are currently 1,000 times higher than they were before humans arrived. The rate is so high, in fact, that the planet hasn’t seen anything like it since the dinosaurs were wiped out in a mass extinction event 65 million years ago. If we don’t take measures to address the situation, the lead scientist for the project, biologist Stuart Pimm of Duke University, says that we are heading for a sixth mass extinction.
The study was published in the journal Science by a team of seven scientists. It focuses on the annual rate of extinctions per one million species rather than the number of species lost each year. This allows scientist to compare extinction rates from different periods in the earth’s history with the aid of fossil records and DNA evidence.
Revisiting a report that Dr Pimm worked on in 1995, the team discovered new data which showed that past figures were incorrect and the prehuman extinction rate was actually only 0.1 species per million per year, not one per year as previously believed. Currently, the extinction rate is between 100 and 1,000 species per million per year. The team points the finger at climate change, habitat destruction, invasive species and overfishing as the primary causes of such an elevated rate.
Knowing the causes gives us hope, claims Pimm. With the aid of modern technology and as an interim measure, we can identify and monitor at-risk species and work to protect them, either through habitat protection, modifying our behavior in cases of overharvesting, and working on captive breeding programs. These won’t halt the larger issue of climate change though, and without action on that front, we may just end up joining the queue for mass extinction along with everything else.