, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 357-371

Re-assessing current extinction rates

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Abstract

There is a widespread belief that we are experiencing a mass extinction event similar in severity to previous mass extinction events in the last 600 million years where up to 95% of species disappeared. This paper reviews evidence for current extinctions and different methods of assessing extinction rates including species–area relationships and loss of tropical forests, changing threat status of species, co-extinction rates and modelling the impact of climate change. For 30 years some have suggested that extinctions through tropical forest loss are occurring at a rate of up to 100 species a day and yet less than 1,200 extinctions have been recorded in the last 400 years. Reasons for low number of identified global extinctions are suggested here and include success in protecting many endangered species, poor monitoring of most of the rest of species and their level of threat, extinction debt where forests have been lost but species still survive, that regrowth forests may be important in retaining ‘old growth’ species, fewer co-extinctions of species than expected, and large differences in the vulnerability of different taxa to extinction threats. More recently, others have suggested similar rates of extinction to earlier estimates but with the key cause of extinction being climate change, and in particular rising temperatures, rather than deforestation alone. Here I suggest that climate change, rather than deforestation is likely to bring about such high levels of extinction since the impacts of climate change are local to global and that climate change is acting synergistically with a range of other threats to biodiversity including deforestation.