Species disappearing "1000 times faster than normal"

Want to know one of the most hotly debated questions in environmental science?  It's this: How fast are species disappearing today?  A new paper in the leading journal Science suggests the answer is -- very fast indeed.

Undiscovered species... this Amazonian jay doesn't even have a scientific name yet (photo by Mario Cohn-Haft)

Undiscovered species... this Amazonian jay doesn't even have a scientific name yet (photo by Mario Cohn-Haft)

The paper, led by ALERT member and Duke University Professor Stuart Pimm with a team of eminent coauthors, makes several key arguments:

- Species extinctions today are occurring roughly 1000 times faster than the 'background' (or natural) rate that prevailed before humans appeared on Earth

- We know where the most imperiled species are located, with particularly big concentrations in the tropical Asia-Pacific region, especially in places like the Philippines, Borneo, and Sumatra

-Other regions with lots of extinction-prone species include the Andes mountains, West Africa, Madagascar, and other scattered pockets of the world

- Millions of species have not yet been discovered (scientifically described or studied) by scientists; for example, huge numbers of plant, insect, fungi, and nematode species are undiscovered, among many others

- Many of the undiscovered species are imperiled because they have small geographic ranges and occur in vulnerable parts of the world -- known as 'biodiversity hotspots' -- that have already lost much of their original habitat

- Protecting the surviving habitats in the biodiversity hotspots is crucial if we are to stave off a dramatic collapse of biodiversity on Earth

For those who care about biodiversity, this paper (which you can download free at the link above) is an authoritative and highly readable summary of what we know, think, and suspect about the future of life on Earth.


Conservation corridors: a hot topic

We live in an increasingly fragmented world, and that is posing serious problems for wildlife--especially in the face of rising climate change, which can create an imperative for species to move elsewhere.

A possible way to help counter the harmful effects of habitat fragmentation is conservation corridors--linkages between remnant habitats that have been called 'bandages for wounded landscapes'.

Landscape linkages--a conservation corridor in north Queensland, Australia.

Landscape linkages--a conservation corridor in north Queensland, Australia.

This week sees two important developments in corridor research.  The first is a feature by the leading environmental website Mongabay.com of Stuart Pimm's longstanding efforts to use corridors to reconnect fragmented habitats.  Pimm is a global conservation leader and ALERT member.

The second development is an unusually important paper in Nature Climate Change by Patrick Jantz and colleagues that identifies priority areas for conservation corridors in the tropics. The authors assessed thousands of potential corridors between tropical protected areas, and their potential both for aiding biodiversity and for protecting forest carbon stocks.

These are important efforts and show why conservation corridors are a hot topic in both environmental research and practice.

How many species will go extinct?

A longstanding and often heated debate in ecology concerns the number of species on Earth that will eventually disappear forever because their populations are tiny and isolated.  This is a crucial question, because remaining habitats on Earth are being rapidly fragmented.

Two renowned ecologists, Stuart Pimm and Tom Brooks, have stepped into the fray with a short, lively essay on species extinction (Pimm, notably, is a member of ALERT).  It's worth reading if you want to better understand the fate of Earth's biodiversity.

-Bill Laurance