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For anyone interested in the future of Earth's biodiversity, somber news just released indicates we are now in the throes of the planet's sixth major mass extinction, and we only have ourselves to blame.
In a report released online last week in the journal Science Advances, researchers conducted an assessment of species lost within the last several hundred years, in an effort to gauge the impact humans are having on the planet. And their statistics are remarkably grim.
Almost 400 species have gone extinct within the past 100 years, a rate scientists say is 114 times higher than if humans were not around. Among the casualties are vertebrates, who were hit hardest with a loss of 198 species; fish and birds, which lost 66 and 57 species, respectively, and mammals and amphibians, which boasted numbers in the 30s.
And these are just the moderate estimates. If we take into account species found only in captivity or those believed, yet not confirmed to be extinct, the numbers jump to 477 vertebrates: 158 fish, 146 amphibians, 80 birds, and 69 mammals. Expand the time frame to the last 500 years and we're looking at a total of over 670 species lost.
Scientists are now referring to this as the sixth mass extinction in the planet's history. One of the most famous, which occurred around 65 million years ago and is believed to be the result of a giant asteroid impact, wiped out the dinosaurs, along with three out of four species. An even greater event occurred around 252 million years ago. Referred to by paleontologists as the Great Dying, around 90 percent of all the world's species were erased during this event; numbers difficult for most of us to fathom.
What differentiates this event from mass extinctions in the past? This one is caused by humans. And we're just starting to appreciate the impact it may have on the biodiversity of our planet.
"We can confirm that we are entering the sixth extinction, the only one caused by humans," says Gerardo Ceballos, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Instituto de Ecologia at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. "From what we know from the previous ones, it will have a massive impact on biodiversity. The previous mass extinction episodes took between 5 to 15 million years for life on Earth to recover. That is the kind of impact we are causing to biodiversity."
The scientists hope this latest research will spur more action to combat global warming, deforestation, and overexploitation of resources - all of which are responsible for the drastic reduction in species worldwide.
"If you put together what we found plus other findings of other researchers, this seems to confirm unless we do something extremely different on the way we couple development and conservation, we may face a collapse in the next 40 or 50 years," says Ceballos. "We should take this new data as a big warning that what we are causing on biodiversity and the environment in general is going to affect us rather heavily."
Despite the grim prognosis, Ceballos believes a concerted effort, led by national leaders such as President Obama and Pope Francis, may make a difference in the long run.
"If we are aware of the problem and we act, the bottom line that it will be good for humans," Ceballos said. "As we see more impacts of the problems and more important people see that we need to act, I'm optimistic."