Human-induced loss of biodiversity: a driving force towards the planet’s sixth mass extinction

New research shows that, even considering very conservative estimates, species are disappearing much faster than during any other time since the dinosaurs’ demise. The conclusion is an utterly simple one – the human-induced loss of Earth’s biodiversity is driving the planet to its sixth mass extinction.

Human-induced loss of Earth's biodiversity is driving the planet's sixth mass extinction (credit: Reuters)

Human-induced loss of Earth’s biodiversity is driving the planet’s sixth mass extinction (credit: Reuters)

The study published last week in the journal Science Advances, was conducted by a group of scientists including Paul Ehrlich, senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment who is well-known for his extensive work on species extinction.

Using fossil records and extinction counts, the researchers compared the current rate of species loss with what is called the “background rate”, i.e. the average rate of extinction that is normally taking place on the planet. The team used extremely conservative assumptions (e.g. a background rate twice as high as used in previous estimates) to minimize the evidence of an incipient mass extinction, but still found that the ongoing average rate of species disappearance is incredibly fast. For instance, they found that the average rate of vertebrate species loss is 114 times higher than the background rate. The study “shows without any significant doubt that we are entering the sixth great mass extinction event,” says Ehrlich.

Not unexpectedly, humans are amongst the leading causes of this. Our land clearing, introduction of invasive species, carbon emissions, climate change and alteration of ecosystems are driving the loss of our planet’s biodiversity at ramming speed. This is even more frightening considering that as the researchers write: “We emphasize that our calculations very likely underestimate the severity of the extinction crisis, because our aim was to place a realistic lower bound on humanity’s impact on biodiversity”.

Does this means we are doomed? “There are examples of species all over the world that are essentially dead,” Ehrlich says, who also adds: “We are sawing off the limb that we are sitting on”. “Avoiding a true sixth mass extinction will require rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species, and to alleviate pressures on their populations – notably habitat loss, over-exploitation for economic gain and climate change,” the study’s authors conclude.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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