Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Extinction: just how bad is it and why should we care?

“Dad, the world is missing amazing animals. I wish extinction wasn’t forever”. Despite my wife and I working as biologists, our five-year-old son came to make this statement independently. He is highlighting…

The passing of Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise, is emblematic of the mass extinction of species the earth is currently experiencing. Flickr/A Davey

“Dad, the world is missing amazing animals. I wish extinction wasn’t forever”.

Despite my wife and I working as biologists, our five-year-old son came to make this statement independently.

He is highlighting what I and many others consider to be society’s biggest challenge, and arguably failure: the continuing loss of species from Earth. The massive impact we are having on the planet has firmly entrenched us in a period of our history commonly called the Anthropocene.

The environment was front and centre of public consciousness and a key election focus in Australia in 2007, but following the global financial crisis and continuing economic uncertainty, we seem to care less and less about the environment and more and more about budgets and surpluses.

If the environment were a bank and species its money, it would need a rescue package that would make the recent European bail-outs look insignificant.

The state of extinction

We still have little idea of how many species exist on Earth. Only a fraction (~1.5 million of an estimated 5 million) have been formally described, and even fewer assessed for their conservation status. How do we conserve what we don’t know exists?

If Earth were a house, it would be as though we had listed the contents of only one room, and even then were not aware of their true value, while simultaneously the house was being demolished.

It is important to note that extinction – the permanent loss of species – is a natural process that is counterpoint to speciation, the creation of new species through evolution.

Background or “normal” rates of extinction vary through time but are typically in the order of one to two species per year. Current rates of extinction, however, are estimated to have reached 1000 to 10,000 times this rate. Put bluntly, the annual species body count is no longer a mere handful, it’s an avalanche.

If you want to see a Japanese river otter, you’ll have to visit the museum. Hamura Municipal Zoo, Tokyo/Wikimedia Commons

There have been at least five episodes of mass extinctions in the past, during which anywhere from 60 to 96% of existing species became extinct. Indeed, 99% of all existing species that have ever existed are now extinct.

Volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts are among the prime suspects as the cause of previous mass extinctions – including the oft-cited demise of the dinosaurs. Yes, extinctions, even mass extinctions, are not unprecedented. The difference this time is that humanity is the cause of the earth’s sixth mass extinction event, through such anthropogenic impacts as habitat loss and modification, the spread of invasive species and climate change.

Farewelling species

Some 875 species have been recorded as declining to extinction between 1500 and 2009 which, the observant will note, is entirely consistent with a background of extinction rate of 1-2 species per year. What, then, are the grounds for supposing that the current rate of extinction actually exceeds this value by such a huge margin?

The key phrase is “have been recorded”. As already discussed, the majority of species have not been identified or described. A reasonable supposition is that unrecognised species are lost at a rate comparable with that of known ones.

We now also have reasonable estimates of species diversity in particular habitats, such as insects in tropical forests. Our measures of the proportion of such habitats that have been destroyed therefore provide a good basis for estimating species loss. If these estimates are right, we are now living through a period where the rate of extinction is 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate.

Delving deeper, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species notes that 36% of the 47,677 species assessed are threatened with extinction, which represents 21% of mammals, 30% of amphibians, 12% of birds, 28% of reptiles, 37% of freshwater fishes, 70% of plants, and 35% of invertebrates.

More recently we have bid farewell to species such as the Baiji Dolphin, the Alaotra Grebe and the Japanese River Otter. And who could forget the passing of “Lonesome George”, the last individual Pinta Island Tortoise, who died on 24 June 2012? Closer to home, our most recent casualty was a small bat, the Christmas Island Pipistrelle.

There is one brighter note: a recent study by Fisher and Blomberg has shown that depending on species’ characteristics and other factors such as the places where they occur, remnant populations of some species may still turn up.

But an exclusive focus on extinction is inappropriate anyway, given that many surviving species are hanging on only by the barest of threads. The dire situation of Australia’s marsupials is stark evidence of this. Even iconic and once abundant species such as the Tasmanian Devil are now on the brink of oblivion.

Many species listed as critically endangered, like this leaf-scaled sea snake, are close to or already extinct. Hal Cogger

Deep in debt

A further sobering thought is encompassed in the concept of “extinction debt”. Recent studies in Europe have demonstrated that the species currently at highest risk of extinction most likely got that way because of human actions 50 to 100 years ago.

I’m sure many of us have driven on an Australian country road, admiring the grand old eucalypts that stand alone in the nearby paddocks – remnants of the pre-agricultural landscape. But you may also have noticed that under the big trees there are often no little trees. Hence, when the big trees die, as they inevitably will, there will be nothing to replace them.

If we want to avert extinctions from our legacies we will need to direct conservation efforts most into areas carrying the highest debts.

At our own peril

But why should it matter to us if we have a few less species? The simple answer is that we are connected to and deeply dependent on other species. From pollination of our crops by bees, to carbon storage by our forests, and even the bacteria in our mouths, we rely upon biodiversity for our very existence. We neglect this at our own peril. And of course there are equally justified arguments for keeping species based purely on their aesthetic and cultural importance, or for their own sake.

Doom-and-gloom predictions tend to paralyse us, rather than jolting us into action. So what can be done? There are wonderful examples of individuals and organisations working at both small and large scales to tackle and even sometimes turn back the tide of extinctions.

There are also some compelling personal approaches, such as that of Alejandro Frid who is writing a series of letters to his daughter as a way of confronting the issues of climate change and biodiversity loss. But what is urgently needed, of course, is radical change in society as a whole in the way it interacts with its environment.

Until then, my fellow ecologists and I must continue to work hard to sell our message and spread awareness of society’s biggest challenge.

Join the conversation

82 Comments sorted by

  1. Alex Cannara

    logged in via LinkedIn

    The 29 April seminar slides here should be of interest when they reach the archives...

    http://energyseminar.stanford.edu/event-archive

    Don't take the Primary Producer numbers directly, since they ignore the fact that photosynthesis is only ~7% efficient in using sunlight to make carbohydrates, etc. Plants didn't evolve to make humans energy -- surprise!?

    So we have alternatives other animals don't -- direct solar power, nuclear power, etc.

    report
  2. William Hughes-Games

    Garden weed puller

    We think we are causing extinction and obviously we are but the anthropocene started at least 200,000 years or so ago as first man left Africa and wiped out an amazing fauna where ever he went. Australia and America are well known in this respect. The most recent case is that of New Zealand which had this plague visited on it a thousand years or so ago. Best known is the extirpation of the Moa but this was only the most glaring extinction. We have ecological amnesia. What we have today is but a shadow of what existed very recently and we are bent on destroying even this remnant.

    report
    1. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      Robert,
      Not you again! Do they pay you to write?
      ............................................
      Speak for yourself, Kermit. I have a very good idea of what is going on, what is of concern to me and my successors and I must say that I'm surrounded by bleating ninnies who cry catastrophe each time they break an egg for an omelette.
      Progress comes with a cost. Accept it and have fun.

      report
    2. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Geoff, not more of your tripe thanks. I think it safe to say that we are one opposite sides of the fence on a range of issues.

      So will we agree to disagree and not bother each other, or shall we get into a slanging match on every thread?

      report
  3. Nathan Brown

    Student - Env. Design (Architecture)

    If we are seeing 'recorded' extinction rates congruent with background levels, and we assume (probably reasonably accurately) that the actual rate of extinction is much higher, why do we not assume that the background extinction rate is equivalently higher than that 'recorded'?

    report
  4. Jeremy Tager

    Extispicist

    As someone who gets profound joy from nature, its beauties, mysteries, intelligences, adaptations and interdependencies, I ask myself a slightly different question - why doesn't extinction matter to most people - or matter enough for things to change? Forty years of environmental education and our business and political leaders don't understand that this diversity is part of our life support network; forty years and the fact that it is just wrong for us to allow species to disappear by our hands…

    Read more
  5. Peter Boyd Lane

    geologist

    Nathan, apart from the catastrophic mass extinctions of the past, the Earth has never experienced extinctions on the scale caused by homo sapiens. I suspect the reason the number of species may appear to be relatively small is that those recorded have been mainly the larger mammals and birds, while a host of other species have been lost without notice.

    report
    1. Nathan Brown

      Student - Env. Design (Architecture)

      In reply to Peter Boyd Lane

      Hi Peter,

      I understand the implications of the changes we (homo-sapiens) have brought to this planet and that we must take drastic action fast if we have any hope of reaching a sustainable existence, however in the debate on what action to take at what level, it is imperative to look upon all evidence critically.

      While I see the logic in assuming there is an equivalent rate of extinction in 'unrecorded species' as there is in recorded ones, thus coming to the conclusion that extinction rates…

      Read more
    2. Michael Marriott

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Peter Boyd Lane

      Agree Peter - but also the time scales. If you consider the Holocene extinction goes back at least 13,000 years to include mega fauna extinctions in the Americas, Australia (going back further but over a longer time frame), Asia and the Pacific (New Zealand a notable recent example) then we can see a clear pattern.

      As human population expands and we take up increasing space, species go extinct.

      report
    3. Michael Marriott

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Nathan Brown

      If we allow species to go extinct at such a rapid rate it can have profound impacts on ecosystem services: think bees and other pollinators. Recent stories on The Conversation highlight just how inter related our well being can be:

      https://theconversation.com/the-buzz-on-bee-pesticides-australia-should-consider-a-ban-13821

      Bees (including native bees) pollinate crops worth $4-6bn.

      The loss of species can have profound impact on an environment, with cascading and unforseen changes.

      Likewise, we do not now how many species there are - and just as crucially how their disappearance may impact ecosystems.

      report
    4. Nathan Brown

      Student - Env. Design (Architecture)

      In reply to Michael Marriott

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your response, it does not unfortunately, address what I was saying....... As I stated, I understand the implications of extinction perfectly well and know that we need to act, but I think we need to understand what the true facts are when comparing extinction numbers now and in the past so we can decide how much action to take and where. We need to be clear about what the facts are and what is simply speculation.

      To put it simply, are we comparing apples with apples…

      Read more
    5. Thomas Edwin Yeats

      Mr

      In reply to Nathan Brown

      The question, devilishly difficult to answer, is which extinctions are part of the natural evolutionary process,nad should not be meddled with as the extinction allows the improved variant to enter the scene, and which need attention

      report
    6. Michael Marriott

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Nathan Brown

      Nathan, the consensus amongst ecologists and scientists is well established - a recognition that the "sixth great extinction" is underway. The literature is extensive, and easily accessible so is not a case of educated guessing. We're dealing with probabilities. I've provided links to materials below.

      I'm not denying extinction is part of the evolutionary process: the question is how fast and rapid it is happening and how that how destabilising.

      I agree with you on how do we prioritise the…

      Read more
    7. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Michael Marriott

      Michael,
      You are straining credibility when you invoke The Guardian & Wiki in the context of science. Might as well throw in a comic book or two as well. There is consensus that 'Superman' was a ripper of a comic.
      What leads you to think doom? Have you had some strong, saddening experience like few others have? The natural state of the person is to be full of fun and optimism.

      report
    8. Michael Marriott

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Actually Geoffrey I've provided plenty of links to research and science throughout.

      Now, apart from you ad-hom attack do you have any evidence to the counter my argument?

      Or is that it? Because frankly, your response qualifies as decidedly underwhelming and bordering on the level of school yard taunt: "I know I am but so are you".

      report
    9. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Michael Marriott

      Pull out enough of the natural biodiversity through extinctions accelerated by anthropogenic impacts and we likely run the risk of compromising our own continuance as a species, particularly crucial species like the polinators.

      report
    10. William Hughes-Games

      Garden weed puller

      In reply to Peter Boyd Lane

      Hi Peter
      You might find a book by Farley Mowat, Sea of Slaughter of interest with regard to how we treat our fellow passengers on planet earth.

      report
    11. William Hughes-Games

      Garden weed puller

      In reply to Michael Marriott

      I think this whole subject highlights the need for extensive wilderness areas. Our knowledge is simply not sufficient to think we can second guess nature. She needs linked areas where she can do her thing and preserve species so that if we ever do achieve wisdom, there will be a remnant to start with to restore what will otherwise be lost.

      report
    12. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to William Hughes-Games

      Yeah, farms have been known to be more productive when linked together into large lots.
      What's more important, large areas for food or large areas for species climbing down the evolution tree? What are your criteria?

      report
    13. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Nathan Brown

      Heh, until we end up in 'ecological bubbles/domes'. on earths surface maybe? Nope.. That I think, would be a really b a d i d e a, although I've seen some radical 'thinkers' suggest it as a 'solution'.

      We're on the best space ship ever, and we don't seem to react to it falling apart biologically. It's like we assume us to be small gods, each one of us, able to live without anything else co-existent :)

      report
    14. Nathan Brown

      Student - Env. Design (Architecture)

      In reply to Michael Marriott

      Hi again Michael,

      Thanks for your reply. While I have not been able to get a copy of the book you linked, I have read the others. There is some good information there, however it seems to bolster what I was getting at.

      "The fact that we do not currently know the total number of species, in the past nor the present, makes it very difficult to accurately calculate the non-anthropogenically influenced extinction rates. As a rate, it is essential to know not just the number of extinctions, but…

      Read more
  6. Henry E. Adams

    logged in via Facebook

    I’m a strong DNA advocate and believe every living being is a personal family member. And yes, it hurts me personally to see any living thing die – whether by asteroid or glyphosate. However, I’ve spent a 35-year career seeing what “a heartless unfeeling bitch the environment is.” It also hurts me personally to hear the namby-pamby nonsense my scientific colleagues continue to utter about the environment without any apparent awareness of the “heartless bitch that the environment is.” Euan, species…

    Read more
    1. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to Henry E. Adams

      Cynical, hard, uncaring, realistic and, against the flow of this article- very unsociable.
      Dr A-F, I agree with what you said.

      report
    2. Richard Helmer

      REsearch Engineer

      In reply to Henry E. Adams

      many things come uninvited. it is ok to care about life even in the face of death and futility.

      i suspect its important for us to understand complex terrestial ecosystems if humans are to escape and survive before the sun blows up. i quite enjoy pets and differences in scientific opinion

      thanks Euan for your article

      report
    3. Michael Marriott

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Henry E. Adams

      Thanks for an interesting comment Dr. A-F,

      I do have to raise the question of whether or not you see any linkages between the health of the environment (biosphere) and how that impacts human well being and flourishing? You are no doubt familiar with the concept of ecosystem services: that the natural environment (including many species of animal) provide a tangible benefit to ourselves, and by extension our civilisation. From the bees that pollinate and bacteria that handle waste management, without…

      Read more
    4. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Henry E. Adams

      Dr. A-F,
      Not bad for a short essay in a forum like this, but you might think about improving it by altering your definitions of what is normal and what is anomalous. The rate of human death is normal. Does not need analysis. We're not on a freight train to nowhere, many of us know precisely where we are at, what to expect and what goals to strive for. Your freight train is the norm, not the exception.
      I'm unconvinced that species extinction is accelerating - mainly because I can't get life science people to define 'species' in acceptable terms. If you can't define it, you can't count it.
      Perhaps continuing advances in biomolecular science of life fields will give some answers. Meanwhile, there's a strong case for business as usual because there are higher priorities for spending money than having heaps of hyped up kids tagging things that move with satellite tracking collars.
      ............
      A hungry person will always eat the last Dodo.

      report
    5. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Henry E. Adams

      Nice, although uncomfortable, thoughts, and on the whole I think I agree on your freight train :) although I refer to it as a 'human momentum' primary. It's really complicated and there are no simple ways to solve it. A lot of it I think nature itself has the best solutions for, time tested ones. And diversity will go down, however we handle it.

      Does this mean that we should stop trying then?
      Nope.

      We can for example slow down our materialistic approach to living. That will make a difference. Instead of putting it to the consumer's, a state can stop importing goods that it knows kills of a rain forest. That will also make a difference. And education, a lot of it, available for all, I expect to make the best difference, all assuming people want such that is :)

      To slow down, and to restrict our population will make a difference.

      report
  7. John Campbell

    farmer

    As a child I used to hear about extinctions, threatened species and other disasters. Having the optimism of youth I thought these problems would be addressed by intelligent adults.

    How wrong I was! (about intelligent adults perhaps?)

    report
  8. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    Thank you Euan for this salutary piece. Woud you consider a follow-up piece which goes a little more deeply into the benefits of biodiversity?

    report
  9. Don Driscoll

    Research Fellow in Ecology at Australian National University

    Some people, like ecologists, social scientists, land managers, and public servants will have to put in a lot of effort to turn the tide on extinctions.

    The really good news is that most people barely have to lift a finger to contribute enormously to stopping extinctions. All most people need to do is vote for the political party with the most environmentally friendly policies. And you might only need to do that in one election to drive a shift in the focus of the major parties.

    report
  10. Grant Higham

    English Teacher

    Thanks for the great article. Biodiversity is one of the key things we, as a species, have to think about. I've been reading a little Jared Diamond lately, and I think he provides a good framework in which to view these problems. I commend you on not disappearing into cynicism or despair. Keep up the good work. Some people seem to think that just because it looks like we don't know how to stop the freight train, or where to find the brakes or even what they look like, we can do nothing. However, by necessity some actions must be more beneficial than others in achieving certain goals (i.e. keeping our ecosystem as viable as possible). I like to think that while it might be true that I, as an individual, can't change the world, I have a hell of a lot better chance than my dog. He definitely can't do it.

    report
    1. Ian Gunn

      Veterinarianr; Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Services; Project Director of AGSRCA at Monash University

      In reply to Grant Higham

      Euan, congratulations . spot on - Australia's record ifor the loss of species is shattering and not improving - we must combine all our available resources in an effort to save the remaing species and their genetics (DNA) before its too late.

      report
  11. Mark Lawson

    senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

    Okay - the article is a valuable addition to the biodiversity debate but a confused one. I take it from the article that the high rate of extinctions is due to estimates of clearing of land and habitats. So many hectares cleared multiplied by estimates of biodiversity and you have the big figure cited. This is the common argument.

    The big problem is when the author tries to compare it with the mass extinction events - events like massive volcanic explosions or meteorites hitting or whatever…

    Read more
    1. Wil B

      B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Mark Lawson, you sound like a climate science denier (which I understand you are not), equivocating over methodologies and minutiae, when I’m sure even you would admit, based on the well-founded opinions of basically every single practising ecologist that is currently publishing, there is an extinction event currently under way.

      Oh and you’re dead wrong about land clearing – in Australia, a first world country that exports a lot of its ecological debt, land clearing rates have recently (last decade) slowed, but they are still very much positive, and, as described in the article, there is a big overhang from all of the clearing that has occurred over the past century.

      report
    2. Michael Marriott

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Mark, extinction events are measured by the fossil record: for example the abrupt decline in species variety after the Permian-Eocene Thermal Maximum or the KT-Cretaceous extinction event.

      There is a natural background rate of extinction, however as the author notes there are ways to calculate the present rate of extinction as above this. You're confused. Again.

      However note this: the five great extinctions people reference only pertain to the last 540m years. This does not cover include…

      Read more
    3. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Wil B

      Sorry, but I think you'll find clearance rates have reversed.. I know the Aus year book figures were saying that some years ago.. Its what you'd expect given most useful land would have been cleared decades ago.. but if you wish to prove me wrong you'd have to go back to the figures..

      I'm a skeptic, of course.. although I don't challenge the science, such as it is in climate, but the forecasts..

      report
    4. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Michael Marriott

      Michael - your post was very long and almost totally irrelevant to anything I wrote. The problem I pointed to is a clear one. The author attempted to draw some comparison between present extinction rates, based on mass clearance, and previous extinction events. I pointed out that he was comparing apples with oranges, as my original post makes clear. Nothing you wrote refutes this.

      You start talking about what we can expect in the next few decades. That's fine but the bulk of it counts as speculation.Is there any sign of an increase in extinction rates (outside of land clearances?) the author doesn't seem to say so. It would be hard to tell over a period of less than two or three decades, but can you point to any increase to date? Can that increase be attributed to climate as opposed to land use changes, and how do you know?

      report
    5. Wil B

      B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Sorry, i thought journalists did their own research.

      "The rate of land clearing, one of the most significant pressures affecting the land environment, is slowing, but still averaged around one million hectares each year over the decade to 2010.
      Land clearing and ecosystem fragmentation are associated with the expansion of both agriculture and settlements, and are concentrated in a relatively small number of regions. The legacy impacts of land clearing are substantial, with loss and fragmentation of native vegetation. By the end of the decade, the continental extent of land clearing was balanced by the extent of regrowth–although the character and values of the original and regrowth vegetation are often different."

      http://www.environment.gov.au/soe/2011/summary/land.html#ib5

      report
    6. Michael Marriott

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      My point Mark, just to clarify, is that there are many drivers of extinction - simply zeroing in one point of minutiae is not relevant. You need to look at the broader picture.

      report
    7. Michael Marriott

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Just to clarify you wrote: "The big problem is when the author tries to compare it with the mass extinction events - events like massive volcanic explosions or meteorites hitting or whatever. then you would need an estimate of the land cleared/forest cover destroyed by that event multiplied by a biodiversity figure and then you will have a comparable figure."

      The author states the current state of extinction is due to many influences, not just land clearance: "The difference this time is that…

      Read more
    8. Jeremy Tager

      Extispicist

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      While landclearing rates were reversed in Australia, that may reverse again under the Newman Government in Queensland, which is in the process of undoing the veg clearing laws in that state. Land clearing in Indonesia and Malaysia has not reversed. Land clearing in the amazon - not slash and burn but broadscale genetically modified soy - has slowed but not reversed. We are also seeing a bypassing of traditional ownership of land in places like PNG, where the government invented 'special agricultural and business leases' for the planting of palm oil - a million hectares leased to the Chinese being the largest thus far. Habitat loss though isn't just clearing. Invasive species is almost as large a problem. Take a look at Christmas Island where the combined depredations of mining, detention centres and invasives - particularly the crazy ant - has seen a rapid decline in a number of endemic species, and the first mammalian extinction (christmas island pipistrelle) in fifty years.

      report
    9. Michael Marriott

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Mark wrote: "You start talking about what we can expect in the next few decades. That's fine but the bulk of it counts as speculation. Is there any sign of an increase in extinction rates (outside of land clearances?) the author doesn't seem to say so. It would be hard to tell over a period of less than two or three decades, but can you point to any increase to date? Can that increase be attributed to climate as opposed to land use changes, and how do you know?"

      A good place to start would be…

      Read more
    10. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Wil B

      Well we do our own research and I did and its apparent clearance rates have reversed.. the link you provided proves nothing. Its just a bit of fluff from the Federal conservation department..

      report
    11. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Michael Marriott

      Michael - your comments on the mass extinction events are almost certainly correct and interesting although still beside the point.

      I don't agree at all that its clear from the article its a range of factors but that also is not relevant. The main way its calculated is from land clearances. You may chuck in something else for temperature but as you so helpfully point out, the mass extinction events were in a different category altogether. Obviously its several steps up from anything humans could do the landscape, so comparing what's happening now to a mass extinction event is obviously absurd.

      report
    12. Wil B

      B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      The State of the Environment Report is "just a bit of fluff"? No, that's the press releases tricked up as news in your paper (c.f Paddy Manning's observations). SoE is a highly credible and authoritative five yearly report on trends in Australia's environment.

      report
    13. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Jeremy Tager

      Jeremy - you may well be right about Qland. You may be right about Indonesia and Malaysia, although I'd have to look for the figures myself, but as for PNG and the Amazon, you must realise that those places have been under indigenous cultivation for a very long time over wide areas. Has that Chinese plantation or the Soy crops you mention made any appreciation addition to the effects of long used farming techniques? I very much doubt it. In any case the moment you stop the jungle grow straight back - so is any allowance made for that regrowth in the species count?

      Christmas island's been a mess for decades.

      report
    14. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Michael Marriott

      Michael - I said specifically outside of land clearances. I was taking about extinctions in recorded species not the estimates. A quite adequate figure for extinctions in recorded species is given in the article. They get that big increase from estimating mainly from land land clearances (mostly) so it just tells us they cleared a lot of land. which they have. You started talking about the effects of climate changes which is a somewhat different matter.

      report
    15. Mark Carter

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Mark, You are making a bit of a fool on yourself on this one.
      You seem to think 'regrowth' after clearing is equivalent in its ability to host species to the pre-clearance ecology. It isn't. In all cases where unaltered habitats were cleared its not even close.
      When clearance happened on long term cycles in a small scale mosaic (such as traditional aboriginal fire management systems which have largely gone) this usually wasn't a big deal- enough 'old growth' habitat always remained as refuges for species dependent on these established communities. The clearance now is usually on a vast scale, any cycles are short term. Refuges are removed and not replaced. Extinction runs rampant.

      Before dabbling in fields far outside your realm of competence, next time at least make the effort to understand the topic properly (although it sounds like your political hangups would interfere with that).

      report
    16. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email @tpg.com.au

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Indeed Christmas Island (allegedly the site of Australia’s latest suspected mammal extinction) has taken a battering, thanks to anthropogenic “wisdom.”

      The Brits dropped their hydrogen bombs on the island in the 50s, phosphate mining began in the 1890s, a quarter of the island’s rainforest has been cleared and abandoned mines and invasive weeds everywhere.

      Stay tuned while Momma Nature plots her next seriously catastrophic revenge............

      report
    17. Michael Marriott

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mark Carter

      Good recomendation Mark C. I've also read that book and it is a good popular read on the PETM extinction event.

      It is for this reason I've attempted to draw readers attention to the Oxygen crisis of several billion years ago.

      Mark Lawson is very keen to wave away the current extinction crisis and evidence as "absurd".

      I think there is more than sufficient evidence for the scale of present extinction events going as far back as the early holocene (circa 13,000 years ago).

      I note that Mark Lawson does not provide links or evidence to support his arguments.

      report
    18. Michael Marriott

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Mark, you seem very focussed on land clearance rates as the driver of species extinction. You suggest that present extinction rates can be calculated to match those of past extinction events using a formula based upon how much land was cleared then.

      Is this correct?

      You write this: "The big problem is when the author tries to compare it with the mass extinction events - events like massive volcanic explosions or meteorites hitting or whatever. then you would need an estimate of the land cleared/forest…

      Read more
    19. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Jeremy Tager

      Jeremy.
      Have you any idea how many humans were spared nutrition-related early deaths by the use of phosphate fertilizer?
      Why do you doomsayers forever turn benefits into bogey men? Is there nothing that Mankind has done of which you can feel proud?

      report
    20. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Mark Carter

      Mark Carter,
      After many meetings with Aboriginal people in the Top End of Australia in the days when we were good friends and shared knowledge, it was apparent that very little was known by word of mouth past a few generations, a few being below 10.
      There is little scientific credence in describing the current whitey interpretation of what some Aborigines might have said about the Dream Time, as correct. I've heard some of it made up on the spot.

      report
    21. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Shirley,
      Let's keep it correct please. The Brits dropped 3 hydrogen bombs, all comparative fizzers, in the vicinity of Christmas Island, using it for an airfield. All of these nuclear bombs were dropped and detonated high in the sky over Malden Island, some 300 km away. I do not know of any harm that this caused to Christmas Island, apart from an airstrip, if you call that harm. Do you?

      report
    22. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email @tpg.com.au

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      It appears you are profoundly ignorant on the atomic tests which were conducted in the Central Pacific. Despite your claim to the contrary, WMD were tested near, on and above Christmas Island:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Grapple

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10467894

      http://www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/op-eds/uk-nuclear-veterans-timed-out

      “Sensitivity to radiation tends to increase with increasing biological complexity of an organism…

      Read more
  12. Wil B

    B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

    This website below bills itself as "The World Wide Web's Most Comprehensive Source of Information on the Current Mass Extinction "

    http://www.mysterium.com/extinction.html

    It's very depressing reading.

    report
  13. Jim Donaldson

    PhD Scholar at Fenner School of Environment and Society, ANU

    Thank you Euan for a stimulating article. Can Jeremy Tager get an answer to his question: "why doesn't extinction matter to most people - or matter enough for things to change?" Why don't people understand that biodiversity is part of our life support network? Time and time again I hear this lament about loss of biodiversity but the explanations as to why it should REALLY matter to people are very thin on the ground. JimD

    report
  14. John Clulow

    Lecturer (Conservation Biologist) at University of Newcastle

    Extinction. How bad is it? Pretty bad. Things are worse than they look in the official stats eg 4 species of frogs listed as extinct in Australia, but the number is probably 7. The extinction debt phenomenon is a bit scary, things keep coming out of left field: northern mammal declines (I used to think, no foxes and rabbits in northern Australia, what could possibly go wrong?), amphibian chytrid disease, tassie devil facial tumours etc etc. We are not good at predicting these things before they happen, or responding to them when they are upon us. We need better ways of doing things.

    report
    1. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to John Clulow

      Keep it going, John. 4 frogs become 7, this causes research into bacterial infections and exotic ailments. How much has the list of Birds, Mammals, Invertebrates etc blown out in the official Australian record of extinct species?

      report
  15. Mike Stevens

    Conservationist (land manager) - private comments, own views

    "Doom-and-gloom predictions tend to paralyse us, rather than jolting us into action. So what can be done?". A group of passionate and dedicated scientists, land managers and end users from all works of life (government, farm, NGO) are getting together to bid for the third year in a row, yes, third year, to submit a CRC grant bid to the federal government, the Wildlife Biodiversity CRC (see https://www.facebook.com/SafeguardingBiodiversityCRC or twitter @biodiversityCRC). The CRC participants do…

    Read more
  16. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

    Boss

    Why not print some actual data, like Australian extinctions? Here's a snapshot of birds.

    Species Common name Location(s) Comments
    Aplonis fusca Norfolk Starling Norfolk Island, NSW 1923. Competition from introduced European Starling, Song Thrush and Common Blackbird, clearance for agriculture.
    Columba vitiensis godmanae White-throated Pigeon (Lord Howe Island), Lord Howe Pigeon Lord Howe Island
    Cyanoramphus erythrotis Red-crowned Parakeet (Macquarie Island), Macquarie Island Parakeet…

    Read more
  17. George Harley
    George Harley is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired Dogsbody

    As a species, we are far less significant than bacteria. They dominate this planet. Our longevity is yet to be tested. We have only been here five minutes. We will , I suspect, soon join the enormous pool of extinct failures in the grand Darwinian non-plan of random let-me-get-out-of-here struggles that make life so interesting.

    report
  18. Thomas Edwin Yeats

    Mr

    It saddens me that these species pass into oblivion, but you have to think of it as evolution in action. Habitat destruction is a big problem and is invitable with human population growth

    report
    1. Michael Marriott

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Thomas Edwin Yeats

      Should we not do anything and claim it is "natural" - when it is not?

      Or do we, as a species which claims to be intelligent, do something knowing we are the driver of this extinction?

      report
    2. Thomas Edwin Yeats

      Mr

      In reply to Michael Marriott

      It is a very sticky issue as to whether an extinction is caused by direct anthropogenic action. Where it can be shown that it is then one needs to look at individual circumstance on a case by case basis. Natural selection and the evolution of species is an amazingly intricate and interrelated thing. Species are presented with challenges thrown up by the habitat. Some may have anthropogenic roots, others not. How that species adapts and changes in response to the stimulus of these challenges is how species evolve. One response is extinction and this extinction allows ecological room for a variant or completely different, even a preexisting species which has learnt the skills to fill this niche, species to fill the gap.

      You imply that we should rush out and prevent any and all extinctions. This would be wrong for the above reasons

      report
    3. Michael Marriott

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Thomas Edwin Yeats

      Thanks for the reply Thomas - I'm not claiming we should rush out and prevent all extinctions. As sated in other parts of this discussion we should arrest the present rate of extinction and preserve ecosystems/habitats.

      The interests of humanity and many species converge.

      I understand evolution - however the pace of changes we are inducing will outpace the rate in which many species can adapt. Normally this happens on geologic time scales. We are inducing profound changes in a matter of decades…

      Read more
  19. Ted Fensom

    logged in via Facebook

    Good start on the encyclopaedia of extinctions Euan Ritchie.The fundamental work by Mike Stevens CRC and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and other Land Trusts, Bilby Teams and corridor connectors/Green Fauna Infrastructure implementers should be stated.

    For Mark Lawson and some others the bulk trends of land clearing avoid the necessary research needed and the impacts identified particularly accumulated and offsite impacts which would assist recovery plans for threatened species…

    Read more
    1. Euan Ritchie

      Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University

      In reply to Ted Fensom

      Hi everyone,

      It's terrific to see such varied and vigorous discussion. I've decided to take a back seat and see what unfolds and how the discussion evolves (yes, bad pun!). All I'd add is that when it comes to extinction, things cannot be overly simplified (my post could never do the whole issue full justice, nor was it intended to), and black and white and polarised standpoints don't move us forward I think.

      There’s my 2 cents. I look forward to hearing more!

      Euan

      report
  20. Euan Ritchie

    Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University

    Hi everyone,

    It's terrific to see such varied and vigorous discussion. I've decided to take a back seat and see what unfolds and how the discussion evolves (yes, bad pun!). All I'd add is that when it comes to extinction, things cannot be overly simplified (my post could never do the whole issue full justice, nor was it intended to), and black and white and polarised standpoints don't move us forward I think.

    There’s my 2 cents. I look forward to hearing more!

    Euan

    report
  21. Shirley Birney

    logged in via email @tpg.com.au

    A preliminary experiment conducted by Reece Pedler of the South Australian Arid Lands Natural Resources Management Board revealed that ten to 28 million reptiles/year may be entrapped in the 1-2 million drill holes at Coober Pedy. Yet another tragedy of the commons?

    Eight telephone calls to the SA government (including to three relevant departments) and another to Reece Pedler rendered zero results – not one single call was returned.

    A lady at the Coober Pedy Times claimed the results had been embellished since the critters slither/crawl out on their own so I imagine the drill holes in the opal fields at Coober Pedy will remain uncapped in perpetuity?

    http://conservationmaven.com/frontpage/millions-of-australian-reptiles-falling-victim-to-mine-shaft.html

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1442-8903.2010.00511.x/abstract

    report
  22. Peter Boyd Lane

    geologist

    I find it incredible that so many express doubt that humans have caused extinctions. Just look at what happened when homo sapiens migrated after the Wurm glaciation (say 13,000 yrs ago) ... massive northern hemisphere extinctions, or homo sapiens migrating to Australia, NZ, and later migrations (invasions) bringing ferals, chemicals, machinery, each migration coincident with extinctions, on a geological scale, with extraordinary speed. That is simple, emperical evidence, and sure the cause of each extinction could and no doubt will be disputed by some, but out in the real world it has and is happening.

    report
  23. Liam J

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    The voluntary human extinction movement (a.k.a business as usual) will eventually resolve the problem for other species; rearguard actions are a pleasant occupation in the meanwhile.

    Some posters seem unable to grasp the upsides of diversity; i suggest they be marooned with 1500 battery chickens and a bag of roundup ready corn seed, visit every decade to see how they're getting on.

    report
  24. Doug Hutcheson

    Poet

    Our rôles of Top Predator, Top Consumer and Top Polluter do not sit well with our rôle of Top Intelligence (at least, here on Lifeboat Earth). We are smart enough to destroy everything we touch, but not smart enough to care, until it is too late. Homo Stupidus stupidus.

    report
  25. Rita Schaffer

    Registered psychiatric nurse at NASA Healthcare

    There are a few major and also some more minor stumbling blocks in relation to preventing the decline of species and the inexorable and permanent loss of others which has become the status quo in recent times. Apathy is a big negative as is ignorance and what is incomprehensible to many and I’ll borrow that eloquent phrase: ‘we do not inherit the Earth, we only borrow it from future generations.’ This is the context which is further complicated by what is for some people the immediate imperative…

    Read more
  26. Caroline Copley

    student

    Sorry this is a bit long and a bit late but I'm upgrading my quals so don't visit sites frequently. Thanks for all the great links but I am afraid I left mine out a bit, but please ask if you would like to follow something particular up.

    I have been thinking about the global issues for a while as a trained biologist, and what I identify other than anthropogenic problems are the following global crises:
    - soil decline, many places will be not be able to be farmed in decades to come;
    - overfishing…

    Read more