Extinction threat growing for vertebrates, researchers report in Science

October 26, 2010

Increasing numbers of birds, mammals and amphibians have moved closer to extinction in the last several decades--but not as far as they would have if no conservation measures at all had been enacted, researchers report.

Their study is being published online by the journal Science, at the Science Express Web site, at 6:30 p.m., U.S. Eastern Time, Tuesday, 26 October. Science is the journal of AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

To assess the status of the world's vertebrates, a large, international research team lead by Michael Hoffmann of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission and Conservation International analyzed data for over 25,000 vertebrate species categorized on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

They report that one-fifth of species is classified as Threatened, and this figure is increasing. On average, 52 species of mammals, birds and amphibians move one category closer to extinction each year. The tropics, especially Southeast Asia, are home to the highest concentrations of Threatened animals, and the situation for amphibians is particularly serious.

Most declines are reversible, but in 16 percent of cases they have led to extinction. The researchers also asked whether conservation efforts such as establishing protected areas and adopting national legislation have made any measurable contribution to preserving biodiversity. By looking at species whose conservation status has improved in response to some type of conservation measure, Hoffmann and colleagues estimate that overall declines would have been approximately 18 percent worse without any conservation actions. Efforts that dealt with invasive species have been more effective than those attempting to address habitat loss or hunting, the researchers report.

A set of projections in an accompanying Review article also forecasts biodiversity declines during the 21st century, but with a wide range of possible outcomes. This broad range arises because we have significant opportunities to intervene through better policies, and because scientific projections include large uncertainties--which is an urgent problem in itself, according to Henrique Pereira of the University of Lisbon and coauthors. In their Review, they compare and summarize model projections of biodiversity in terrestrial, freshwater and marine systems in coming decades, looking at four main areas of concern: species extinctions; species abundances and community structure; habitat loss and degradation; and shifts in the distribution of species and biomes.

"These papers move us toward a comprehensive picture of the current and future trajectories of the world's biodiversity. Such a picture is important for targeting the areas of greatest concern and also the areas of greatest uncertainty, thus providing a focus for policy and research," said Andrew Sugden, Science's Deputy and International Managing Editor.
-end-
For information on financial support for the Hoffmann et al paper, please see section 6 ("Acknowledgements") of the Supporting Online Material that accompanies the paper. The work by Periera et al was supported by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of the UK, the European Commission and UNEP, and Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science (www.sciencemag.org) as well as Science Translational Medicine (www.sciencetranslationalmedicine.org) and Science Signaling (www.sciencesignaling.org). AAAS was founded in 1848, and includes some 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS (www.aaas.org) is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, www.eurekalert.org, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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