Nov 21, 2020 - Science

New research suggests global wildlife may avoid a biodiversity catastrophe

A newly hatched loggerhead turtle crawls on the beach in Turkey.

A newly hatched loggerhead turtle crawls on the beach in Turkey. Photo: Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

New research indicates endangered wildlife around the world may not yet be headed toward an extinction wave.

Why it matters: From climate change to widespread habitat destruction, the wildlife with which we share this planet are under tremendous stress. But their apparent resilience gives us hope that we won't leave this planet biologically impoverished.

Background: In a world where there are more than 8 million estimated species — the vast majority of which haven't even been identified yet — it's difficult to really know just how endangered endangered species are.

  • But some alarming analyses in the past estimated that on average vertebrate species had declined by more than 50% since the 1970s, enough to put the planet on track for what's been called the "Sixth Extinction."

Yes, but: In a study published in Nature this week, researchers used advanced statistical tools to try to discover the true rate of decline in vertebrates.

  • They found a more hopeful picture: less than 3% of vertebrate species are catastrophically declining, and once they are removed from the picture, "the picture changes dramatically," Brian Leung, a biologist at McGill University and the lead author of the paper, told Cosmos.

Details: Those earlier pessimistic estimates had been driven by the relatively small number of species that truly are on a highway to extinction.

  • Instead of a global biodiversity catastrophe, the researchers behind the new study found a few geographic clusters of systematic losses, but no clear trend for most species.
  • Those clusters mean conservation efforts might best be targeted at specific geographic areas that are under threat, like the Indo-Pacific region, which is home to severely endangered birds and freshwater mammals.

The bottom line: As long as humans continue to spread out across the planet and warm the climate, pressure will grow on endangered species. But the situation is far from hopeless.

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