Transforming the Age of Extinction

October 1, 2014


The Guardian:

The number of wild animals on Earth has halved in the past 40 years, according to a new analysis. Creatures across land, rivers and the seas are being decimated as humans kill them for food in unsustainable numbers, while polluting or destroying their habitats, the research by scientists at WWF and the Zoological Society of London found.

“If half the animals died in London zoo next week it would be front page news,” said Professor Ken Norris, ZSL’s director of science. “But that is happening in the great outdoors. This damage is not inevitable but a consequence of the way we choose to live.” He said nature, which provides food and clean water and air, was essential for human wellbeing.

“We have lost one half of the animal population and knowing this is driven by human consumption, this is clearly a call to arms and we must act now,” said Mike Barratt, director of science and policy at WWF. He said more of the Earth must be protected from development and deforestation, while food and energy had to be produced sustainably.

The steep decline of animal, fish and bird numbers was calculated by analysing 10,000 different populations, covering 3,000 species in total. This data was then, for the first time, used to create a representative “Living Planet Index” (LPI), reflecting the state of all 45,000 known vertebrates.


One study found that although human population has doubled in the past 35 years, the number of invertebrate animals – such as beetles, butterflies, spiders and worms – has decreased by 45% during that same period.

“We were shocked to find similar losses in invertebrates as with larger animals, as we previously thought invertebrates to be more resilient.” said Ben Collen of the U.K.’s University College London, one of the study authors.

Although big, photogenic species, such as tigers, rhinos and pandas, get the bulk of the attention, researchers say it’s clear that even the disappearance of the tiniest beetle can significantly change the various ecosystems on which humans depend.

“We tend to think about extinction as loss of a species from the face of Earth, and that’s very important, but there’s a loss of critical ecosystem functioning in which animals play a central role that we need to pay attention to as well,” said lead author Rodolfo Dirzo of Stanford University.

“Habitat destruction will facilitate hunting and poaching, and species will have difficulty in finding refuge given land use change and climatic disruption,” added Dirzo.

The study reported that around 322 species have gone extinct over the last five centuries.

Scientists have coined the phrase “anthropocene defaunation” — meaning human-caused animal decline — to describe this apparent mass extinction.

Five times in the history of the Earth, a huge percentage of the planet’s life has been wiped out in what are called mass extinctions, typically from collisions with giant meteors.

About 66 million years ago, one well-known extinction killed off the dinosaurs, along with three out of four species on Earth. About 252 million years ago, the “Great Dying” snuffed out about 90% of the world’s species.

What’s new about this extinction is “that the underlying driving force for this is not a meteorite or a mega-volcanic eruption; it is one species – homo sapiens,” said Dirzo.


In Britain, the turtle dove has declined by 95 per cent, while seals, toads, red squirrels, moths, dormice, hedgehogs and hares are also suffering.

The WWF said the report was a ‘wake-up call’ and urged people to cut down on consumption.

“It’s certainly very concerning,” said Mike Barrett, Director of Science and Policy at the WWF, “And if it carries on at the present rate we will continue to lose even more animals.

“People in Britain need to realise they are not just impacting their own country. The footprint of western societies is seen in every other part of the world.

“But we are not despairing, because we are able to say why we are losing these animals; we are seeing a loss of their habitats. We know what the problem and we are perfectly capable of putting it right.

“We need political agreement so a global climate deal can be reached and policies which take account of natural capital. And we need to start thinking about our own consumption.”


National Geographic:

Globally, one in eight—more than 1,300 species—are threatened with extinction, and the status of most of those is deteriorating, according to BirdLife International. And many others are in worrying decline, from the tropics to the poles. (Read about threatened species on each continent.)

In North America’s breadbasket, populations of grassland birds such as sweet-trilling meadowlarks are in free fall, along with those everywhere else on the planet. Graceful fliers like swifts and swallows that snap up insects on the wing are showing widespread declines in Europe and North America.

Eagles, vultures, and other raptors are on the wane throughout Africa. Colonies of seabirds such as murres and puffins on the North Atlantic are vanishing, and so are shorebirds, including red knots in the Western Hemisphere.

Sandpipers, spoonbills, pelicans, and storks, among the migratory birds dependent on the intertidal flats of Asia’s Yellow Sea, are under threat. Australian and South American parrots are struggling, and some of the iconic penguins of Antarctica face starvation. (See an interactive map of birds threatened around the world.)


2 Responses to “Transforming the Age of Extinction”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    The Sixth Extinction is a one of the best books I’ve read in years. I liked it so much after checking it out of the library that I bought my own copy. It’s a great read for anyone who has any interest in biology and life on planet Earth.

    Climate change is only one of the things driving the sixth mass extinction, but man has his dirty fingers in just about all of it, and Kolbert covers a lot of it. I was sorry to see Kolbert waffle so much near the end of the interview—-too “polite” and “measured”. I think she would have been far more effective if she had let out with a “Boxism”—as in “If man doesn’t stop doing XYZ, then we’re F**Ked”.

    I think the most important parts of her book deal with the oceans and ocean acidification due to climate change. The world can do without certain trees and certain frogs or birds in certain places, but too many humans depend on the oceans for food and ALL living things depend on the microorganisms there to manufacture oxygen and sequester carbon. If the rising oceans no longer produce much food and their O2-CO2 chemistry is destroyed, no one will care much about being flooded out.

    It was again disturbing to hear that moron Paul Brown speak, and even more disturbing to think that some people in Alabama voted for him. It was good to hear Suzuki, though—-he gets it, and says it well.

  2. […] The Guardian: The number of wild animals on Earth has halved in the past 40 years, according to a new analysis. Creatures across land, rivers and the seas are being decimated as humans kill them fo…  […]

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