National Geographic News
Shown is a golden-headed or Cat Ba langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus) critically endangered primate from Vietnam. There are just 55 of these animals left on Earth.

The golden-headed or Cat Ba langur, shown here at the Endangered Primate Rescue Center in Vietnam's Cuc Phuong National Park, is a critically endangered primate. Earth's species are rapidly dwindling, due largely to habitat destruction and climate change.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, www.joelsartore.com

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic

Published May 29, 2014

On May 19, 2010, at Joint Base Balad, north of Baghdad in Iraq, someone brought U.S. service member Jonathan Trouern-Trend a frog in a plastic bottle. The brightly colored amphibian had been hiding out in an unlikely place: the latrine.

Many on base knew Trouern-Trend as "the guy to identify critters," he said. A lifetime nature lover, he was on his second tour of duty in Iraq as a sergeant.

Before releasing the frog into a nearby pond, Trouern-Trend uploaded a picture of it to the mobile app iNaturalist, which connects a worldwide community of people who report sightings of animals and plants online.

App users informed him that he'd found a lemon-yellow tree frog (Hyla savignyi)—and noted that scientists had never recorded one outside of Kurdistan (map). The species' known range had suddenly expanded.

A photo of a butterfly.
A female (at left) and male endangered Schaus swallowtail, or island swallowtail, are seen at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera & Biodiversity in Gainesville, Florida. Fewer than a hundred of the insects are left—on a single island in the Florida Keys.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, www.joelsartore.com

This kind of citizen science has exploded in recent years because of smartphones. Now, according to a new review of research about Earth's biodiversity, it's giving conservationists hope that new technology can slow extinctions. (See: "5 Surprising Drone Uses (Besides Amazon Delivery).")

That's good news, because according to a review published on May 29 in the journal Science, current extinction rates are up to a thousand times higher than they would be if people weren't in the picture.

Study leader Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University and contributor to National Geographic's News Watch blog, and his colleagues analyzed various data sources—in particular the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, a global inventory of species—to produce the first major review of extinction data. (See: "20,000 Species Are Near Extinction: Is It Time to Rethink How We Decide Which to Save?")

Mobile apps, GIS satellite data, and online crowdsourcing, Pimm says, may be a partial antidote to the problem. Through these technologies, "we're mobilizing millions of people around the world, and we're on the cusp of learning very much more about where species are than we have ever known in the past." That's critical, he explains, because now "we know where the species are, we know where the threats are, and—even though the situation is very bleak—we are better able to manage things."

A photo of a frog.
One of the two known surviving Rabb's fringe-limbed tree frogs, photographed at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, died in 2012. This critically endangered freshwater species from Panama may be extinct in the wild.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, www.joelsartore.com

Peter Crane, dean of Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, said by email that the new "paper does huge service in pulling together the latest thinking on species extinctions for very diverse groups of organisms."

Crane, who was not involved in the study, agreed that new technologies like remote sensing and more comprehensive databases "will not only improve the effectiveness of conservation investments, but will also strengthen monitoring of change in species-level biodiversity through time."

How Many Out There?

Calculating extinction rates can be difficult, in part because no one knows exactly how many species there are. Scientists have identified at least 1.9 million animal species, and possibly millions more have yet to be named. And according to the study, at least 450,000 plant species likely exist.

Pimm says conservationists can calculate the extinction rate of the known species by keeping track of how many die out each year.

The technique is similar to that used to figure out a country's death rate: track the number of people who die in a given population each year, scaled to that population. Mortality rates are usually calculated as the number of deaths per thousand people per year.

A photo of a curassow.
This critically endangered male blue-knobbed curassow was photographed at the Houston Zoo. Found in the wild only in Colombia, this species' population is estimated at fewer than a thousand.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, www.joelsartore.com

Applying the same statistical approach to extinction data revealed a rate of 100 to 1,000 species lost per million per year, mostly due to human-caused habitat destruction and climate change. (See: "7 Species Hit Hard by Climate Change—Including One That's Already Extinct.")

To calculate the rate of extinction before modern humans evolved, about 200,000 years ago, Pimm and his colleagues reviewed data from fossil records and noted when species disappeared, then used statistical modeling to fill in holes in the record. That analysis revealed that before humans evolved, less than a single species per million went extinct annually.

The study authors suspect that the extinction rate will only increase if trends continue—possibly resulting in what scientists call the sixth mass extinction in Earth's history. (Related: "The Sixth Extinction: A Conversation With Elizabeth Kolbert.")

Another conclusion of the study that can't be ignored, says Yale's Crane, is "that there remain huge gaps in knowledge. At least for the most diverse groups of organisms on Earth, the urgent need to clarify how many species there are, where they live, and how their populations are changing remains a key impediment."

A photo of a rhino.
Suci, a critically endangered Sumatran rhinoceros living at the Cincinnati Zoo, died this year. Intensive poaching has left fewer than 200 in the wild.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, www.joelsartore.com

People Power

To Jenny McGuire, a postdoctoral research scientist at the University of Washington's School of Environmental and Forest Sciences who wasn't involved in the study, the results aren't surprising.

Though some might quibble about the exact rate, she says, "in general scientists are in agreement that we're at a period of heightened extinction risk and rates, and that's been occurring nearly since humans have come onto the landscape."

A photo of a rare fish.
A rare chucky madtom hangs on at Conservation Fisheries, a fish-breeding center in Knoxville, Tennessee. The species' population is unknown, but may include fewer than a hundred individuals.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, www.joelsartore.com

McGuire sees the new study as a "really excellent call to arms" for people to act to prevent more species from vanishing.

She says that people can vote for policies that lessen the impact of climate change, which is hitting the oceans particularly hard by raising the water's pH and dissolving the shells of many marine animals. People can also encourage their governments to connect one nature reserve to another.

Pimm says protected areas, the "frontline of conservation," have kept extinction rates of mammals, birds, and amphibians 20 percent lower than they would have been without refuges. Nearly 13 percent of Earth's land has been set aside, but only 2 percent of the ocean is part of a refuge.

A photo of a puma.
A Florida panther named Lucy is shown at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. Only 160 of these southern panthers are left in the wild.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, www.joelsartore.com

Pimm and colleagues noted that global databases and crowdsourcing are helping to fill in blanks by tracking biodiversity outside of protected areas, where species tend to be less studied. (Also see "The Ethical Flap Over Birdsong Apps.")

And of course anyone can contribute by becoming a citizen scientist like Trouern-Trend, who said he's part of a "a niche of people who want to help out" by giving conservationists a snapshot of our world. "From fungus to birds to plants," he said, "it's all interesting to me."

Follow Christine Dell'Amore on Twitter and Google .

66 comments
Susan Ho
Susan Ho

I do not have high hopes on saving the endangered species. I feel very sad but hearing everyday that people are destroying nature and its animals, I cannot help feeling hopeless. The poachers just killed the famous, biggest, most loved elephant Satao. I am so sad!

tammy owens
tammy owens

not too many humans, too many humans damaging the planet.

without humans ruining habitat there would be 1000 times fewer extinctions.

here we have supposedly intelligent  people on this planet who insist on building  houses and cities that damage the planet, instead of buildings that blend into the environment .   humans.

they rip out acres of valuable trees and put down cement. they create chemicals, then dump them on thier skin then dump them in the water they drink, they polute the soil, and then eats its produce. were loosing our intelligence through apathy and laziness, brought on by such lifestyles.

the foolish humans continue to build square wood houses in tornato ridden states, and build below sea level,  build on coastlines, and on mountainsides, then cry when they loose everything to  'nature' including lives,    where are the brains?

Dave Richie
Dave Richie

Its that big corporate ignorance , if only 10 of the main giant corporations decided tomorrow that they would help the cause it would be a major boost ,surely these people think more about making money and relies they are human and have a heart that is capable of love  

Greg Fietz
Greg Fietz

TO MANY HUMANS - TOO MANY HUMANS - TOO MANY HUMANS - Lets do something definite about this problem and all other human / animal / climate / air / ocean problems will self correct....Why is the cause of our planets problems rarely directly referred to??..Are we all so self centred, or plain scared, to speak the obvious truth, that our authors and leaders stay quiet??  Why not a "Campaign to Stop The World Wide Human Plague"

Joseph Muguwa
Joseph Muguwa

Days of doom are appearing,Slowly BUT surely

Kirk Owens
Kirk Owens

Jim Roberts hit the nail on the head. Look at man's "management" of Yellowstone Park as an example of how our good intentions actually accelerated or introduced changes. We are relying on the same science that originally claimed mice came from grain and rags left in a barn, the earth was flat, the sun revolved around the Earth, and, most recently, salt intake needed to be strictly limited. All you members of the Arrogant Ahole family wishing disease, destruction, and death on the human species should start with yourselves. Oh, wait, aren't humans also animals?

Eugene Slobodniuk
Eugene Slobodniuk

The Climate change hoax? Hoax?What planet are you on Sam? Evidently your Ph.D. didn't cover a great deal in common sense and logical application of currently know data. Good luck with running with the "nay-sayers" but that will not solve the problems we, the human species are creating on this one off planet we call home.

David Linn
David Linn

Humans are the only species that cannot live in harmony with nature. We seem to exist only to destroy everything else in our environment. The world will be a better place when humans have become extinct.

Sam Snyder Ph.D. MPH
Sam Snyder Ph.D. MPH

I really enjoy National Geographic, but you have to stop with all the climate change hoax, it has been discredited over and over!  There has been no warming for 12 years!  The only climate change is a normal cycle of the planet and the sun.  CO2 is not a pollutant. but rather a life giving gas by the way of photosynthesis producing oxygen.  We couldn't survive if it was not for 23% of oxygen in the atmosphere produced by CO2 and plants. 76% of our atmosphere is nitrogen and we can't breath that.  You and your cohorts are making fools out of yourselves simply to promote wealth transfer!  So give up the ghost and move on!

Richard Marsh
Richard Marsh

Humans have overcome all but a few of our natural enemies, only a few diseases left to figure out. The end result is that humans have to kill each other to control population which is why war is now one of the largest industries on the planet. we need more wars for the animals sake! 

Cindy Beam
Cindy Beam

There have been a lot of good and interesting comments here.  To me, the main point is - do what YOU can to help the ecosystems of our world.  That helps far more than arguing points that can't be changed.  

Charles Catalano
Charles Catalano

World population is projected to grow more than 28% or 2 billion more people by 2050. I don't see how our planet's resources can sustain that growth without further and increased pressure on earth's ecosystem.

Dipanjan Mitra
Dipanjan Mitra

When will WE, human beings, be extinct so that love, peace and harmony reign again???

William Boteler
William Boteler

Do not just feel sad. There is a great deal we can do about this problem. If this problem upsets or concerns you, please get involved. We want future generations to have a beautiful planet. It's more important than a lot of the junk our economy values so highly.

Paul Matich
Paul Matich

All those missionaries was the beginning of the end for nature.

D. Jones
D. Jones

This makes me very sad. All of these beautiful animals that future generations will never see.

jim roberts
jim roberts

No, textbooks describe a virus as nonliving. They aren't composed of cells like humans.

D Ram
D Ram

seriously, humans have this subjective belief about themselves--that they're the center of the universe; that they've been ordained by some higher power to carry out its will and spread like a virus. 


By textbook definition, we're a virus

D Ram
D Ram

It's about time us humans go extinct. How about 2 asteroid impacts? The extra one to destroy our hubris

jim roberts
jim roberts

In a pure sense the idea of species is static and if species are static then how does evolution of species fit in? The idea of adapt or become extinct smacks of Lamarksism.

In academia and popular culture evolution is always promoted as a species" progression to something better and more improved. Evolution is blind and does not to choose winners or losers. Extinction rates are based on models and models are only as good as the data its based on (ie global warming models). Don't get me wrong. I do believe in being a good steward to the earth and that conservation is a good thing. But, like everything in these modern times there is a knee jerk reaction to what is deemed a crisis. And for all of those people who think humans are the cause of all the earth's problems then there is only one logical thing you can do, politely exit the planet.

Tanmay Sharma
Tanmay Sharma

It’s time to act or else more species will extinct at much faster rate. 

Adam Ravenhurst
Adam Ravenhurst

@Greg Fietz the problem isn't human beings. the problem isn't even society. the problem is civilization. there always have been and still are indigenous peoples who had societies but not civilizations. that is how the species is to live. not taking more than it needs. that means listening to that voice in our heads that tells us to walk away. you know it's there too.

Adam Ravenhurst
Adam Ravenhurst

@David Linn You completely erase the history of indigenous people and ways of life with the statement that humans are the only species that cannot live in harmony with nature. Civilization is at odds with nature, not humans, not even societies.

Fred Leavines
Fred Leavines

@David Linn Where does it say we are suppose to live in harmony with nature. It's all about evolving . Thing's are suppose to become extinct. We as humans evolve every day and some day we will be extinct.


SmileyFace Smile
SmileyFace Smile

@David Linn Even if humans become extinct it's a matter of time before a new species just like us evolves and destroys the planet.

Charles Catalano
Charles Catalano

Watch the last episode of Cosmos and see if your understanding changes.

Greg Fietz
Greg Fietz

@Richard Marsh Or use our highly evolved brains to to control our out of control plague proportion breeding.

SmileyFace Smile
SmileyFace Smile

@Richard Marsh True except with all the new weapons and technology, I really don't think dropping a nuclear bomb is going to lower human population without killing all the animals too.

Coleen Flory
Coleen Flory

@Richard Marsh Sometimes you have to root for MERS, AIDS, Ebola, etc... It's sad that we aren't intelligent enough as a species to not overpopulate/over-stress our resources. Our ability to survive outstripped our technological, intellectual, ethical development; we cannot prevent ourselves from destroying everything - so something needs to come along and take out a good-sized chunk of the population to have any hope of re-balancing things and making room again for all the other living things on the planet.

Coleen Flory
Coleen Flory

@Cindy Beam What little I can do for the planet and the future by drastically reducing my "footprint" is obliterated by our continuing population growth and consumption of resources/destruction of habitat. But I do it anyways for the sake of my spirit, and in hopes that it might encourage others to think - and that they may follow suit.

Monica Pasos
Monica Pasos

@Francoise SEGARRA-GEORGEON This doesn't prove that human kill for pleasure.  it proves that humans live without understanding their impact on the planet. Humans aren't intentionally killing most of these animals just because its fun.  Endangered species are disappearing simply  because of human overcrowding. 

Cindy Beam
Cindy Beam

@William Boteler I agree.  We may think that just one person can't make a difference, but I intend to try.  After reading that Monarch butterfly populations are rapidly declining due to loss of food sources, I bought milkweed seeds so that I can plant some for the Monarchs.  I intend to ride my bike along the country roads and throw out seeds - hopefully, it will help the Monarchs.

Coleen Flory
Coleen Flory

@D Ram Humans wrote 'Holy' books, crowned themselves king of everything... they made themselves divine in their own minds. What a load of hooey.

Brannon Long
Brannon Long

@D Ram Seems like that would only exacerbate the extinction problem, asteroids aren't known to be very selective on which species they destroy.

Lumina Gauthier
Lumina Gauthier

@jim roberts We have the capability of being good stewards, but somewhere along with freedom of choice, some of us decided we couldn't be bothered. There was too much hell raising to be done, and that was more fun, and who's gonna miss a few dead animals anyway?! But, guess what, we're not only killing the other species, we're doing ourselves in as well. It's no longer "fun" just killing animals, the "human" animal is more of a challenge. Countries are at each other again.  Thing is, we deserve our end; the animals and Mother Earth do NOT !

John Doe
John Doe

@Tanmay Sharma Agreed!!! We need to develop a virus that can eliminate about 9/10th of the humanity, so the rest of our natural world has a 'faint' chance to survive...

Greg Fietz
Greg Fietz

@Coleen Flory @Richard Marsh Richard, We ARE INTELLIGENT ENOUGH as a species. Humans have all the knowledge to co-exist with all species on this planet. Our species only has to change its attitude to our home, this planet.. Its not big enough to cope with its PLAGUE OF HUMANS.  As with all plagues of all species, they self destruct, one way or another.  By USING OUR ADVANCED INTELLIGENCE to save our species, NOW, and not when we are dying off as a species in two or three thousand years, we could achieve a bonus for our beautiful planet and SAVE MANY MANY ANIMALS FROM EXTINCTION FOREVER.

Coleen Flory
Coleen Flory

@Ron Galinato You mean euthanasia? The European countries are coming on-board and realizing that the cost/suffering of those incapacitated/suffering should not have to be stoically borne by either the individual or society... I for one do not wish to live mentally/physically incapacitated, and hope by the time I reach that age/condition, my wishes to be released from life will be legal to accommodate/assist.

Fred Leavines
Fred Leavines

@John Doe @Tanmay Sharma Don't you think the rest of the aminals are killing each other to survive? It's not about surviving it's about evolving. One you procreate your job is done. If it would not have been for a disaster the Dino's would be here not us.

Monica Pasos
Monica Pasos

@John Doe @Tanmay Sharma that is exactly what the plague, the influenza outbreak and even the AIDS epidemic was.  Nature's way to control a population out of control. Any population of animals that is over living its habitat's resources is subject to disease, predation and other natural ways to control population size.  the only problem is humans have managed to outsmart them all.  but a reduction on human population is the only way to stop our impact on the planet.  We need to remember we are part of the natural world.  We are not above it.

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