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, 114 (30), E6089-E6096

Biological Annihilation via the Ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction Signaled by Vertebrate Population Losses and Declines

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Biological Annihilation via the Ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction Signaled by Vertebrate Population Losses and Declines

Gerardo Ceballos et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.

Abstract

The population extinction pulse we describe here shows, from a quantitative viewpoint, that Earth's sixth mass extinction is more severe than perceived when looking exclusively at species extinctions. Therefore, humanity needs to address anthropogenic population extirpation and decimation immediately. That conclusion is based on analyses of the numbers and degrees of range contraction (indicative of population shrinkage and/or population extinctions according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature) using a sample of 27,600 vertebrate species, and on a more detailed analysis documenting the population extinctions between 1900 and 2015 in 177 mammal species. We find that the rate of population loss in terrestrial vertebrates is extremely high-even in "species of low concern." In our sample, comprising nearly half of known vertebrate species, 32% (8,851/27,600) are decreasing; that is, they have decreased in population size and range. In the 177 mammals for which we have detailed data, all have lost 30% or more of their geographic ranges and more than 40% of the species have experienced severe population declines (>80% range shrinkage). Our data indicate that beyond global species extinctions Earth is experiencing a huge episode of population declines and extirpations, which will have negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization. We describe this as a "biological annihilation" to highlight the current magnitude of Earth's ongoing sixth major extinction event.

Keywords: conservation; ecosystem service; population declines; population extinctions; sixth mass extinction.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Figures

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.
Decreasing land vertebrates, as exemplified with these four species, include taxa with different conservation status (e.g., low concern, critically endangered), current geographic range (e.g., large, very restricted), and abundance (e.g., common, rare). The data on conservation status, current geographic range, and abundance are from IUCN (28). Barn swallow image courtesy of Daniel Garza Galindo (photographer).
Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.
Global distribution of terrestrial vertebrate species according to IUCN (28). (Left) Global distribution of species richness as indicated by number of species in each 10,000-km2 quadrat. (Center) Absolute number of decreasing species per quadrat. (Right) Percentage of species that are suffering population losses in relation to total species richness per quadrat. The maps highlight that regions of known high species richness harbor large absolute numbers of species experiencing high levels of decline and population loss (particularly evident in the Amazon, the central African region, and south/southeast Asia), whereas the proportion of decreasing species per quadrat shows a strong high-latitude and Saharan Africa signal. In addition, there are several centers of population decline in both absolute and relative terms (Borneo, for example).
Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.
Latitudinal distribution of species richness (Left), decreasing species (Center), and the percentage of species (Right) that are suffering population losses in relation to total species richness, in each 10,000-km2 quadrat. Patterns of species richness in relation to latitude are similar in all vertebrates, although there are more species per quadrat in birds and mammals and, as expected, a scarcity of reptiles and amphibians at high latitudes. The patterns of number of species with decreasing populations indicate that regions with high species richness also have high numbers of decreasing species, but the percentage of decreasing species in relation to species richness shows contrasting patterns between mammals and birds compared with reptiles and amphibians. In mammals and birds, the percentage of decreasing species is relatively similar in regions with low and high species richness. In contrast, there are proportionally more decreasing species of reptiles and amphibians in regions with low species richness.
Fig. 4.
Fig. 4.
The percentage of decreasing species classified by IUCN as “endangered” (including “critically endangered,” “endangered,” “vulnerable,” and “near-threatened”) or “low concern” (including “low concern” and “data-deficient”) in terrestrial vertebrates. This figure emphasizes that even species that have not yet been classified as endangered (roughly 30% in the case of all vertebrates) are declining. This situation is exacerbated in the case of birds, for which close to 55% of the decreasing species are still classified as “low concern.”
Fig. 5.
Fig. 5.
The percentage of species of land mammals from five major continents/subcontinents and the entire globe undergoing different degrees (in percentage) of decline in the period ∼1900–2015. Considering the sampled species globally, 56% of them have lost more than 60% of their range, a pattern that is generally consistent in Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe, whereas in South America and North America, 35–40% of the species have experienced range contractions of only 20% or less. (See text for details.)
Fig. 6.
Fig. 6.
Percentage of local population extinction in 177 species of mammals in 1° × 1° quadrats, as an indication of the severity of the mass extinction crises. The maps were generated by comparing historic and current geographic ranges (49) (SI Appendix, SI Methods). Note that large regions in all continents have lost 50% or more of the populations of the evaluated mammals. Because of the small sample size, biased to large mammal species, this figure can only be used to visualize likely trends in population losses.

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