Sunday, October 21, 2018

Extinct? Who Cares?

“The sixth mass extinction is under way, this time caused by humans. A team of researchers have calculated that species are dying out so quickly that nature's built-in defence mechanism, evolution, cannot keep up. If current conservation efforts are not improved, so many mammal species will become extinct during the next five decades that nature will need 3-5 million years to recover to current biodiversity levels. And that's a best-case scenario.” 

Date: October 15, 2018 

Source: Aarhus University 

"There have been five upheavals over the past 450 million years when the environment on our planet has changed so dramatically that the majority of Earth's plant and animal species became extinct. After each mass extinction, evolution has slowly filled in the gaps with new species. 

The sixth mass extinction is happening now, but this time the extinctions are not being caused by natural disasters; they are the work of humans.  A team of researchers from Aarhus University and the University of Gothenburg has calculated that the extinctions are moving too rapidly for evolution to keep up. 

If mammals diversify at their normal rates, it will still take them 5-7 million years to restore biodiversity to its level before modern humans evolved, and 3-5 million years just to reach current biodiversity levels, according to the analysis, which was published recently in the scientific journal, PNAS." 

Some species are more distinct than others 

"The researchers used their extensive database of mammals, which includes not only species that still exist, but also the hundreds of species that lived in the recent past and became extinct as Homo sapiens spread across the globe. This meant that the researchers could study the full impact of our species on other mammals. 

However, not all species have the same significance. Some extinct animals, such as the Australian leopard-like marsupial lion Thylacoleo, or the strange South American Macrauchenia (imagine a lama with an elephant trunk) were evolutionary distinct lineages and had only few close relatives. When these animals became extinct, they took whole branches of the evolutionary tree of life with them. We not only lost these species, we also lost the unique ecological functions and the millions of years of evolutionary history they represented. 

"Large mammals, or megafauna, such as giant sloths and sabre-toothed tigers, which became extinct about 10,000 years ago, were highly evolutionarily distinct. Since they had few close relatives, their extinctions meant that entire branches of Earth's evolutionary tree were chopped off" says palaeontologist Matt Davis from Aarhus University, who led the study. 

And he adds: "There are hundreds of species of shrew, so they can weather a few extinctions. There were only four species of sabre-toothed tiger; they all went extinct." 

Long waits for replacement rhinos 

"Regenerating 2.5 billion years of evolutionary history is hard enough, but today's mammals are also facing increasing rates of extinction. Critically endangered species such as the black rhino are at high risk of becoming extinct within the next 50 years. Asian elephants, one of only two surviving species of a once mighty mammalian order that included mammoths and mastodons, have less than a 33 percent chance of surviving past this century. 

The researchers incorporated these expected extinctions in their calculations of lost evolutionary history and asked themselves: Can existing mammals naturally regenerate this lost biodiversity? 

Using powerful computers, advanced evolutionary simulations and comprehensive data about evolutionary relationships and body sizes of existing and extinct mammals, the researchers were able to quantify how much evolutionary time would be lost from past and potential future extinctions as well as how long recovery would take. 

The researchers came up with a best-case scenario of the future, where humans have stopped destroying habitats and eradicating species, reducing extinction rates to the low background levels seen in fossils. However, even with this overly optimistic scenario, it will take mammals 3-5 million years just to diversify enough to regenerate the branches of the evolutionary tree that they are expected to lose over the next 50 years. It will take more than 5 million years to regenerate what was lost from giant Ice Age species." 

Prioritizing conservation work 

"Although we once lived in a world of giants: giant beavers, giant armadillos, giant deer, etc., we now live in a world that is becoming increasingly impoverished of large wild mammalian species. The few remaining giants, such as rhinos and elephants, are in danger of being wiped out very rapidly," says Professor Jens-Christian Svenning from Aarhus University, who heads a large research program on megafauna, which includes the study. 

The research team doesn't have only bad news, however. Their data and methods could be used to quickly identify endangered, evolutionarily distinct species, so that we can prioritise conservation efforts, and focus on avoiding the most serious extinctions.

As Matt Davis says: "It is much easier to save biodiversity now than to re-evolve it later." 


Samyuktha Jayaprakash said...

The time is now to act

David Gascoigne said...

You know, increasingly I wonder if anyone cares any more. I am reminded of a truism I read somewhere (unfortunately I cannot remember its author) that the future will be green - or not at all. So many people live in cities now and they are totally detached from nature and have no understanding of how all the organism of the planet interact and create the symbiosis necessary for all life. Concepts such as the Sixth Extinction are mere abstractions for so many. And then we have the great and glorious Trump administration which denies climate change and seeks to reverse the little progress that has been made, and morons like Don Jr and Eric Trump who revel in killing large animals for fun. It is hard to reconcile humans as creators of great music and great art, hallmarks of civilization in fact, with the mindless slaughter of our fellow creatures, and the continued disfigurement of the earth, and the destruction of the very systems upon which life depends. Weighing everything in the balance i think we deserve the Sixth Extinction. After all we have worked hard to create the conditions for it to happen.

Mike Attwood said...

Hi Phil, I can see it happening in a small way in the Sussex village in which I live. In the past 3 years I have recorded the demise of my garden birds. Sparrows and Tits have disappeared in fact My bird feeders are untouched and I am often throwing the food in the bin. I am a photographer and I am out everyday and return home with nothing. I have lived in Sussex for 24 years and have never seen it so bad. The locals blame it on air polution.

Margaret Adamson said...

if we humans that caused all these problems do not wake up and act big time now, we are finished

Anu said...

Hello! Thanks for writing about this topic.

Rhodesia said...

David has said it all. Having spent 50 years of my life in Southern Africa I find it hard to believe what is happing to the wildlife there. All the myths about animal parts for medicine are more than harmful, without the idiot hunters and removing the countryside where they live. It is criminal, and more than sad that the two-legged animals are the worst of all. Four-legged mostly kill to eat, while we destroy everything without good reason.

I am trying slowly to catch up after my hard drive crashed out completely, will be sometime before I am back to where I was. Have a good week. Cheers Diane

Stuart Price said...

The future looks a little bleak. I won't be around to see the worst of it, thank god, just hope the humans who survive mother nature's revenge learn their lesson and are much more considerate.

Angie said...

I care. And I would like to do more to get other people to care. I clearly need to put more time on this!!! Thanks for keeping us on our toes!

Lowcarb team member said...

I do think the future can look bleak, but there are those who do care … dare I be hopeful?

All the best Jan

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