Re-assessing current extinction rates

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

References

  1. AMNH (1998) National survey reveals biodiversity crisis—scientific experts believe we are in midst of fastest mass extinction in Earth’s history. http://www.amnh.org/museum/press/feature/biofact.html

  2. Barlow J, Gardner TA, Araujo IS et al (2007) Quantifying the biodiversity value of tropical primary, secondary and plantation forests. PNAS 47:18555–18560

    Google Scholar 

  3. Batten LA et al (1990) Red Data birds in Britain: action for rare, threatened and important species. NCC and RSPB, T. and A.D. Poyser, London

  4. Botkin DB, Saxe H, Araujo MB et al (2008) Forecasting the effects of global warming on biodiversity. Bioscience 57:227–236

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bradshaw CJA, Giam X, Tan HTW et al (2008) Threat or invasive status in legumes is related to opposite extremes of the same ecological and life-history attributes. J Ecol 96:869–883

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bratton JH (1991) British Red Data Books. 3. Invertebrates other than insects. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, London

    Google Scholar 

  7. Brook BW (2008) Synergies between climate change, extinction and invasive vertebrates. Wildl Res 35:249–252

    Google Scholar 

  8. Brook BW, Sodhi NS, Ng PKL (2003) Catastrophic extinctions follow deforestation in Singapore. Nature 424:420–423

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  9. Brook BW, Bradshaw CJA, Koh LP et al (2006) Momentum drives the crash: mass extinction in the tropics. Biotropica 38:302–305

    Google Scholar 

  10. Brook BW, Sodhi NS, Bradshaw CJA (2008) Synergies among extinction drivers under global change. TREE 23:453–460

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. Brooks TM, Balmford A (1996) Atlantic forest extinctions. Nature 380:115

    Google Scholar 

  12. Brooks TM, Pimm SL, Oyugi JO (1999) Time lag between deforestation and bird extinction in tropical forest fragments. Conserv Biol 15:1140–1150

    Google Scholar 

  13. Brown KS Jr, Brown GG (1992) Habitat alteration and species loss in Brazilian forests. In: Whitmore TC, Sayer JA (eds) Tropical deforestation and species extinction. Chapman & Hall, London, pp 119–142

    Google Scholar 

  14. Carnaval AC, Hickerson MJ, Haddad CFB et al (2005) Stability predicts genetic diversity in the Brazilian Atlantic forest hotspot. Science 323:785–789

    Google Scholar 

  15. Chades I, McDonald-Madden E, McCarthy MA et al (2008) When to stop managing or surveying cryptic threatened species. PNAS 105:13936–13940

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. Chazdon RL, Peres CA, Dent D et al (2009) Where are the wild things? Assessing the potential for species conservation in tropical secondary forests. Conserv Biol 23:1406–1407

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. Colwell RK, Brehm G, Cardelús C et al (2008) Global warming, elevational range shifts, and lowland biotic attrition in the wet tropics. Science 322:258–261

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. Corlett RT (2007) The impact of hunting on the mammalian fauna of tropical Asian forests. Biotropica 39:292–303

    Google Scholar 

  19. Curnutt J, Pimm SL (2001) How many bird species in Hawai’i and the Central Pacific before first contact? In: Scott JM, Conant S, van Riper III S (eds) Evolution, ecology, conservation, and management of Hawaiian birds: a vanishing avifauna. Stud Avian Biol 22:15–30

  20. Diamond JM (1972) Biogeographic kinetics: estimation of relaxation times for avifaunas of southwest Pacific Islands. PNAS 69:3199–3204

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  21. Diamond JM (1987) Extant unless proven extinct? Or extinct unless proven extant? Conserv Biol 1:77–79

    Google Scholar 

  22. Dirzo R, Raven PH (2003) Global state of biodiversity and loss. Annu Rev Environ Resour 28:137–167

    Google Scholar 

  23. Dobson A, Lafferty KD, Kuris AM et al (2008) Homage to Linnaeus: how many parasites? How many hosts? PNAS 105:11482–11489

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. Dunn RR (2004) Recovery of faunal communities during tropical forest regeneration. Conserv Biol 18:302–309

    Google Scholar 

  25. Ehrlich PR, Ehrlich AH (1981) Extinction: the causes of the disappearance of species. Random House, New York

    Google Scholar 

  26. Ehrlich PR, Wilson EO (1991) Biodiversity studies: science and policy. Science 253:758–762

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  27. Erwin TL (1982) Tropical forests: their richness in Coleoptera and other arthropod species. Coleopt Bull 36:74–75

    Google Scholar 

  28. Erwin TL (1988) The tropical forest canopy: the heart of biotic diversity. In: Wilson EO, Peters FM (eds) Biodiversity. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, pp 123–129

    Google Scholar 

  29. Feeley KJ, Silman MR (2008) Unrealistic assumptions invalidate extinction estimates. PNAS 105:E121

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  30. Feeley KJ, Silman MR (2009) Extinction risks of Amazonian plant species. PNAS 106:12382–12387

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  31. Fonseca CR (2009) The silent mass extinction of insect herbivores in biodiversity hotspots. Conserv Biol. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01327.x

  32. Grassle JF, Maciolek NJ (1992) Deep-sea species richness: regional and local diversity estimates from quantitative bottom samples. Am Nat 139:313–341

    Google Scholar 

  33. Hamilton A, Basset Y, Benke KK et al (submitted) Quantifying uncertainty in estimating global arthropod species richness. Am Nat

  34. Hammond PM (1992) Species inventory. In: Groombridge B (ed) Global biodiversity, status of the Earth’s living resources. Chapman and Hall, London, pp 17–39

    Google Scholar 

  35. Hammond PM (1995) Described and estimated species numbers: an objective assessment of current knowledge. In: Allsopp D, Colwell RR, Hawksworth DL (eds) Microbial diversity and ecosystem function. CAB International, Wallingford, pp 29–71

    Google Scholar 

  36. Hawksworth DL (1991) The fungal dimension of biodiversity: magnitude, significance and conservation. Mycol Res 95:641–655

    Google Scholar 

  37. Heywood VH, Stuart SN (1992) Species extinctions in tropical forests. In: Whitmore TC, Sayer JA (eds) Tropical deforestation and species extinction. Chapman and Hall, London, pp 91–117

    Google Scholar 

  38. Hubbell SP (2001) The unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  39. Hubbell SP, He F, Condit R et al (2008) How many tree species are there in the Amazon and how many of them will go extinct? PNAS 105:11498–11504

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  40. Hugall A, Moritz C, Mousali A, Stanisic J (2002) Reconciling paleodistribution models and comparative phylogeography in the Wet Tropics rainforest land snail Gnarosophia bellendenkerensis (Brazier 1875). PNAS 99:6112–6117

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  41. IUCN (2009) http://www.iucnredlist.org/. Accessed 4 Sep 2009

  42. Johns AG (1997) Timber production and biodiversity conservation in tropical rainforests. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  43. Jones WG, Hill KD, Allen JM (1995) Wollemia nobilis, a new living Australian genus and species in the Araucariaceae. Telopea 6:173–176

    Google Scholar 

  44. Koh LP, Dunn RR, Sodhi NS et al (2004) Species co-extinctions and the biodiversity crisis. Science 305:1632–1634

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  45. Lane DJW, Kingston T, Lee BPY-H (2006) Dramatic decline in bat diversity in Singapore with implications for Southeast Asia. Biol Conserv 131:584–593

    Google Scholar 

  46. Laurance WF (1991) Ecological correlates of extinction proneness in Australian tropical rain forest mammals. Conserv Biol 5:79–89

    Google Scholar 

  47. Laurance WF (2007) Have we overstated the biodiversity crisis? TREE 22:65–70

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  48. Laurance WF, Cochrane MA, Bergen S et al (2001) The future of the Brazilian Amazon. Science 291:438–439

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  49. Lawton JH, Bignell DE, Bolton B et al (1998) Biodiversity inventories, indicator taxa and effects of habitat modification in tropical forest. Nature 391:72–76

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  50. Lewis OT (2006) Climate change, species–area curves and the extinction crisis. Philos Trans R Soc B 361:163–171

    Google Scholar 

  51. Lomborg B (2001) The sceptical environmentalist: measuring the real state of the world. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  52. Lovejoy TE (1980) A projection of species extinctions. In: Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), The Global 2000 Report to the President, vol CEQ. Washington, DC, pp 328–331

  53. Lugo AE (1988) Estimating reductions in the diversity of tropical forest species. In: Wilson EO, Peter FM (eds) Biodiversity. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, pp 58–70

    Google Scholar 

  54. Mace GM (1994) Classifying threatened species: means and ends. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B 344:91–97

    Google Scholar 

  55. Manne LL, Brooks TM, Pimm SL (1999) Relative risk of extinction of passerine birds on continents and islands. Nature 399:258–261

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  56. Mawdsley NA, Stork NE (1995) Species extinctions in insects: ecological and biogeographical considerations. In: Harrington R, Stork NE (eds) Insects in a changing environment. Academic Press, London, pp 322–369

    Google Scholar 

  57. May RM (1988) How many species are there on Earth? Science 241:1441–1449

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  58. May RM (1992) Bottoms up for the oceans. Nature 357:278–279

    Google Scholar 

  59. May RM (1998) The dimensions of life on Earth. In: Raven PH (ed) Nature and human society: the quest for a sustainable world. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, pp 30–45

    Google Scholar 

  60. McKinney ML (1997) Extinction vulnerability and selectivity: combining ecological and paleontological views. Ann Rev Ecol Syst 28:495–516

    Google Scholar 

  61. Meijaard E, Sheil D, Nasi R et al (2005) Life after logging: reconciling wildlife conservation and production forestry in Indonesian Borneo. CIFOR, Jakarta Indonesia

    Google Scholar 

  62. Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) Current state and trends, vol 1. Island Press, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  63. Mora C, Metzger R, Rollo A et al (2007) Experimental simulations about the effects of overexploitation and habitat fragmentation on populations facing experimental warming. Proc Biol Sci 274:1023–1028

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  64. Muller-Landau HC (2007) Predicting the long-term effects of hunting on plant species composition and diversity in tropical forests. Biotropica 39:372–384

    Google Scholar 

  65. Myers N (1979) The sinking ark: a new look at the problem of disappearing species. Pergamon Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  66. Myers N (1988) Threatened biotas: ‘hotspots’ in tropical forests. Environmentalist 8:1–20

    Google Scholar 

  67. Myers N (1993) Questions of mass extinction. Biodivers Conserv 2:2–17

    Google Scholar 

  68. Myers N (2003) Conservation of biodiversity: how are we doing? Environmentalist 23:9–15

    Google Scholar 

  69. Myers N, Mittermeier RA, Mittermeier CG et al (2000) Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403:853–858

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  70. Newmark WD (1991) Tropical forest fragmentation and the local extinction of understory birds in the eastern Usambara mountains, Tanzania. Conserv Biol 5:67–68

    Google Scholar 

  71. Novotny V, Basset Y, Miller SE et al (2002) Low host specificity of herbivorous insects in a tropical forest. Nature 416:841–844

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  72. Orme CDL, Davies RG, Burgess M et al (2005) Global hotspots of species richness are not congruent with endemism or threat. Nature 436:1016–1019

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  73. Pimm SL, Brooks TM (2000) The sixth extinction: how large, where and when? In: Raven PH (ed) Nature and human society: the quest for a sustainable world. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, p 46

    Google Scholar 

  74. Pimm SL, Harvey J (2001) No need to worry about the future. Nature 414:149–150

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  75. Pimm SL, Raven PH (2000) Extinction by numbers. Nature 403:843–845

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  76. Pimm SK, Russell GJ, Gittleman JL, Brooks TM (1995) The future of biodiversity. Science 269:347–349

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  77. Pimm SL, Raven R, Peterson A et al (2006) Human impacts on the rates of recent, present, and future bird extinctions. PNAS 103:10941–10946

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  78. Possingham HP, Andelman SJ, Burgman MA et al (2002) Limits to the use of threatened species lists. TREE 17:503–507

    Google Scholar 

  79. Purvis A, Agapow P-M, Gittleman JL et al (2008) Nonrandom extinction and the loss of evolutionary history. Science 288:328–330

    Google Scholar 

  80. Raup DM (1986) Biological extinction in Earth history. Science 231:1528–1533

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  81. Raven PH (1987) The scope of the plant conservation problem world-wide. In: Bramwell D et al (eds) Botanic gardens and the world conservation strategy. Academic Press, London, pp 19–29

    Google Scholar 

  82. Raven PH (1988) Our diminishing tropical forests. In: Wilson EO, Peter FM (eds) Biodiversity. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, pp 119–122

    Google Scholar 

  83. Raven PH, McNeely JA (1998) Biological extinctions: its scope and meaning for us. In: Guruswamy LD, McNeely JA (eds) Protection of global biodiversity: converging strategies. Duke University Press, Durham, pp 13–32

    Google Scholar 

  84. Reid WV (1992) How many species will there be? In: Whitmore TC, Sayer JA (eds) Tropical deforestation and species extinction. Chapman and Hall, London, pp 55–73

    Google Scholar 

  85. Sharrock JTR (1974) The changing status of breeding birds in Britain and Ireland. In: Hawksworth DL (ed) The changing flora and fauna of Britain. Academic Press for the Systematics Association, London, pp 203–220

    Google Scholar 

  86. Shirt DB (ed) (1987) British Red Data Books. 2. Insects. Nature Conservation Council, Peterborough

    Google Scholar 

  87. Simberloff D (1986) Are we on the verge of a mass extinction in tropical rainforests? In: Elliott DK (ed) Dynamics of extinction. Wiley, New York, pp 165–180

    Google Scholar 

  88. Simberloff D (1992) Do species–area curves predict extinction in fragmented forest. In: Whitmore TC, Sayer JA (eds) Tropical deforestation and species extinction. Chapman and Hall, London, pp 75–89

    Google Scholar 

  89. Simon JL (1995) Why do we hear prophecies of doom from every side? The Futurist 29:19–24

    Google Scholar 

  90. Sloan S (2007) Fewer people may not mean more forest for Latin American forest frontiers. Biotropica 39:443–446

    Google Scholar 

  91. Smith FDM, May RM, Pellew R et al (1993) Estimating extinction rates. Nature 364:494–496

    Google Scholar 

  92. Sodhi NS, Koh PL, Peh KS-H, Tan HTW et al (2008) Correlates of extinction proneness in tropical angiosperms. Divers Distrib 14:1–10

    Google Scholar 

  93. Steadman DW (1995) Prehistoric extinctions of Pacific Island Birds: biodiversity meets Zooarchaeology. Science 267:1123–1131

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  94. Stork NE (1988) Insect diversity: facts, fiction and speculation. Biol J Linn Soc 35:321–337

    Google Scholar 

  95. Stork NE (1997) Measuring global biodiversity and its decline. In: Reaka-Kudla ML, Wilson DE, Wilson EO (eds) Biodiversity II: understanding and protecting our biological resources. Joseph Henry Press, Washington, DC, pp 41–48

    Google Scholar 

  96. Stork NE (1999) The magnitude of biodiversity and its decline. In: Cracraft J, Grifo JT (eds) The living planet in crisis: biodiversity, science and policy. Columbia University Press, New York, pp 3–32

    Google Scholar 

  97. Stork NE, Lyal CHC (1993) Extinction or ‘co-extinction’ rates? Nature 366:307

    Google Scholar 

  98. Stork NE, Coddington JA, Colwell RK et al (2009) Vulnerability and resilience of tropical forest species to land use change. Conserv Biol 23:1438–1447

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  99. Thomas CD, Cameron A, Green RE et al (2004) Extinction risk from climate change. Nature 427:145–148

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  100. Tilman DR, May RM, Lehman CL et al (1994) Habitat destructions and the extinction debt. Nature 371:65–66

    Google Scholar 

  101. van Roosmalen MGM, van Roosmalen T, Mittermeier RA (2002) A taxonomic review of the titi monkeys, Genus Callicebus Thomas, 1903, with the description of two new species, Callicebus bernhardi and Callicebus stephennashi, from Brazilian Amazonia. Neotrop Primates 10(Suppl):1–53

    Google Scholar 

  102. Wang BC, Sork VL, Leong MT et al (2007) Hunting of mammals reduces seed removal and dispersal of the Afrotropical tree Antrocaryon klaineanum (Anacardiaceae). Biotropica 39:340–347

    Google Scholar 

  103. Williams SE, Bolitho EE, Fox S (2003) Climate change in Australian tropical rainforests: an impending environmental catastrophe. Proc R Soc Lond B 270:1887–1892

    Google Scholar 

  104. Willis KJ, Bennett KD, Walker D (2004) The evolutionary legacy of the ice ages. Philos Trans R Soc B 359:15–158

    Google Scholar 

  105. Wilson EO (1988) The current state of biological diversity. In: Wilson EO, Peters FM (eds) Biodiversity. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, pp 3–18

    Google Scholar 

  106. Wilson EO (1989) Threats to biodiversity. Scientific American, September, pp 108–116

  107. Wright SJ, Muller-Landau HC (2006a) The future of tropical forest species. Biotropica 38:287–301

    Google Scholar 

  108. Wright SJ, Muller-Landau HC (2006b) The uncertain future of tropical forest species. Biotropica 38:443–445

    Google Scholar 

  109. Wright SJ, Stoner KE, Beckman N et al (2007) The plight of large animals in tropical forests and the consequences for plant regeneration. Biotropica 39:289–291

    Google Scholar 

  110. Wright SJ, Muller-Landau HC, Schipper J (2009) The future of tropical species on a warmer planet. Conserv Biol 23:1418–1426

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

This paper is based on the Opening Plenary for the 2007 Biodiversity in Crisis International Conference at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam, and I thank Dr David Lane and his co-organisers, for the invitation to present. I also thank Mark Burgman, Nicholas Williams, Barry Brook and S Joe Wright for their comments on earlier versions of this paper.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nigel E. Stork.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Stork, N.E. Re-assessing current extinction rates. Biodivers Conserv 19, 357–371 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-009-9761-9

Download citation

Keywords

  • Extinction
  • Extinction crisis
  • Extinction rates
  • Red Data lists
  • Threatened species