Biodiversity and Conservation

, Volume 24, Issue 10, pp 2497–2519 | Cite as

Vertebrate biodiversity losses point to a sixth mass extinction

  • Malcolm L. McCallumEmail author
Original Paper


The human race faces many global to local challenges in the near future. Among these are massive biodiversity losses. The 2012 IUCN/SSC Red List reported evaluations of ~56 % of all vertebrates. This included 97 % of amphibians, mammals, birds, cartilaginous fishes, and hagfishes. It also contained evaluations of ~50 % of lampreys, ~38 % of reptiles, and ~29 % of bony fishes. A cursory examination of extinction magnitudes does not immediately reveal the severity of current biodiversity losses because the extinctions we see today have happened in such a short time compared to earlier events in the fossil record. So, we still must ask how current losses of species compare to losses in mass extinctions from the geological past. The most recent and best understood mass extinction is the Cretaceous terminal extinction which ends at the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) border, 65 MYA. This event had massive losses of biodiversity (~17 % of families, >50 % of genera, and >70 % of species) and exterminated the dinosaurs. Extinction estimates for non-dinosaurian vertebrates at the K–Pg boundary range from 36 to 43 %. However, there remains much uncertainty regarding the completeness, preservation rates, and extinction magnitudes of the different classes of vertebrates. Fuzzy arithmetic was used to compare recent vertebrate extinction reported in the 2012 IUCN/SSC Red List with biodiversity losses at the end of K–Pg. Comparisons followed 16 different approaches to data compilation and 288 separate calculations. I tabulated the number of extant and extinct species (extinct + extinct in the wild), extant island endemics, data deficient species, and so-called impaired species [species with IUCN/SSC Red List designations from vulnerable (VU) to critically endangered (CR)]. Species that went extinct since 1500 and since 1980 were tabulated. Vertebrate extinction moved forward 24–85 times faster since 1500 than during the Cretaceous mass extinction. The magnitude of extinction has exploded since 1980, with losses about 71–297 times larger than during the K–Pg event. If species identified by the IUCN/SSC as critically endangered through vulnerable, and those that are data deficient are assumed extinct by geological standards, then vertebrate extinction approaches 8900–18,500 times the magnitude during that mass extinction. These extreme values and the great speed with which vertebrate biodiversity is being decimated are comparable to the devastation of previous extinction events. If recent levels of extinction were to continue, the magnitude is sufficient to drive these groups extinct in less than a century.


Biodiversity Mass extinction Sixth mass extinction Vertebrates Fuzzy arithmetic Fuzzy logic 



Many thanks to R. Bruce Bury, Walter E. Meshaka Jr., Stanley E. Trauth, Jamie L. McCallum, David B. Wake, and Michael H. MacRoberts for discussions, feedback, and moral support. Also, thanks to the efforts of editors and anonymous reviewers who provided critical, vital, and much appreciated feedback on earlier revisions.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOC 16352 kb)


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental StudiesUniversity of Illinois SpringfieldSpringfieldUSA
  2. 2.HoldenUSA

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