Sustainability Environment

Threat of global extinction may be greater than previously thought, study finds

“While considering the types of species and ecosystems they know best, experts estimated that about 30% of species have been globally threatened or driven extinct since the year 1500.”
Endangered Blue-Sided Leaf Frog
An endangered Blue-Sided Leaf Frog is photographed in Costa Rica. The Associated Press/ Kent Gilbert

Story at a glance

  • As is common in scientific and medical research, positions of overrepresented groups on certain issues tend to hold greater sway in some fields. 

  • In an effort to document a more diverse set of opinions on biodiversity, researchers conducted a survey of scientists studying this subject in nearly 200 countries. 

  • Based on the findings, researchers conclude threats to global biodiversity may be worse than previously thought.

Amid increasingly dire headlines foretelling a grim outlook for the Earth’s biodiversity and environment, results of a new survey conducted among more than 3,300 scientists show the extent of extinction might be even worse than previously thought.

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, researchers explained how taxonomic and geographic knowledge gaps remain with regard to our understanding of global biodiversity loss. 

“While considering the types of species and ecosystems they know best, experts estimated that about 30% of species have been globally threatened or driven extinct since the year 1500,” said study co-author Forest Isbell of the University of Minnesota in a press release. 

“Experts also acknowledged substantial uncertainty around their estimates, with perhaps as few as 16% or as many as 50% of species threatened or driven extinct over this time,” Isbell continued. 

Survey participants from 187 countries were asked to focus on the species, habitats and ecosystems with which they are most familiar. 

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Researchers came to the conclusion this total might be worse than previously thought as the cohort specifically reported higher estimates for understudied organisms by underrepresented experts in the field, such as women and those from the Global South.

This could be due to the fact that low and middle-income countries tend to make up a disproportionate share of the world’s threatened species and regions. Women participants also tended to study the taxa thought to be most threatened, researchers found. 

In comparison, overrepresented groups of experts — including men and residents of the Global North — tended to prioritize the currently emphasized expansion of protected areas as a conservation solution. 

An overwhelming majority of respondents concluded this biodiversity loss will likely contribute to decreased functioning of ecosystems and nature’s contribution to human wellbeing. 

“Experts estimated that greatly increasing conservation investments and efforts now could remove the threat of extinction for one in three species that may otherwise be threatened or extinct by the year 2100,” authors wrote. 

Findings also highlight the importance of including a range of expert perspectives when making statements about biodiversity and crafting legislation to address the problem. 

Calling the survey “unprecedented” in nature, co-author Akira Mori of the University of Tokyo added, “From the perspective of social and cultural diversity and inclusiveness, even if they are not necessarily complete, I believe we have presented certain suggestions for future international policy discussions.”

Land and sea-use change were listed as some of the top drivers of declining biodiversity in the report, in addition to overexploitation and climate change, while the latter factor and pollution drive declines in many understudied ecosystems.

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