Scientists have warned that humanity’s disregard for the world’s biodiversity could cause the “collapse of civilization”.
In a report published on Monday (September 19) titled “Mutilation of the tree of life via mass extinction of animal genera”, scientists estimated that harmful human activities had wiped out thousands of species at a rate 36 times faster than what would otherwise be naturally occuring.
Co-author of the study Gerardo Ceballos, professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said this crisis was “as serious as climate change” but less well-known.
He said there must be “urgency” in addressing this issue since what is at stake is “the future of humanity”.
According to him, there is no doubt this is a sixth mass extinction. Whether it has already begun, however, remains a matter of debate, although all experts agree that the current rate of extinction is alarming.
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Numerous studies exist already on the disappearance of species but this one has been picked up because it looked at the extinction of entire genera.
In the classification of living beings, the genus is between the rank of species and family. For example, the dog is a species belonging to the genus Canis, itself in the Canidae family.
“I think this is the first time that we have tried to evaluate the extinction rate at a level higher than that of the species,” said Robert Cowie, a biologist at the University of Hawaii,
“This demonstrates the loss of entire branches of the tree of life”, a representation of life first developed by Charles Darwin, he added.
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The study shows that “we are not just pruning twigs, but that we are using a chainsaw to get rid of large branches,” added Anthony Barnosky, professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley.
The researchers relied in particular on the lists of extinct species from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They focused on vertebrate species (excluding fish), for which more data are available.
Of around 5,400 genera (comprising 34,600 species), they concluded that 73 of them had become extinct in the last 500 years – most in the last two centuries. Firstly birds, followed by mammals, amphibians and reptiles.
To understand whether this rate is higher than normal, the researchers then compared this result to the extinction rate estimated using fossil traces over the very long term.
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“Based on the extinction rate over the last million years, you would expect two genera to go extinct, but we lost 73,” explained Gerardo Ceballos. According to the study, the extinction of these 73 genera should have taken 18,000 years, not 500.
These estimates remain uncertain, with many species not known and fossil records incomplete. But according to the researcher, they are probably underestimated.
And human activities, which destroy habitats for crops, infrastructure and other needs, but also overexploitation, such as overfishing, hunting, animal trafficking, are regarded as the causes.
The loss of a genus can have consequences on the functioning of an entire ecosystem, even a possible “collapse of civilization” in the long term, argues Gerardo Ceballos.
“If you have a wall made of bricks, and each brick is a genus, removing a brick is not going to cause the wall to collapse,” he said. “But if you take away many more, then the wall falls.”
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