Extinction "Hotspots" Revealed in New Study

John Roach
for National Geographic News
December 12, 2005

This moniker of doom is destined for 794 species of animals and trees currently eking out an existence in 595 sites around the world, conservationists warned today.

Creatures in impending danger include whooping cranes on a Texas tidal flat, a type of rabbit on a Mexican volcano, penguins in the Galápagos Islands, and a species of pine tree in Australia.

"All these are spots where extinction is likely to strike next if we don't do anything," said Taylor Ricketts, director of science for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C.

"That 'if we dont do anything' is the big part of this idea," he added. "These places present the most clear opportunity to slow down and stem the extinction episode we are in now."

Ricketts and colleagues with the recently formed conservation group Alliance for Zero Extinction will publish their findings in the December 20 issue of the research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The paper pinpoints centers of imminent extinction, detailing which species are in peril and where they live.

According to Ricketts, the work suggests an immediate "no-brainer" strategy for preventing the looming extinctions at these sites: Protect the habitat that remains.

Stuart Pimm is a conservation ecologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He said the paper "does an outstanding job of identifying" tangible priority areas for conservation. "This is a hugely important contribution," he added.

Known Species and Sites

Sites included in the study have definable boundaries and contain within those bounds at least one internationally recognized endangered or critically endangered species.

The sites also represent habitats that are essential for the species' survival. Most of the sites are the only areas where a certain species is known to live or where a lone population of a migratory species, such as the whooping crane, spends part of the year.

More than a hundred sites contain more than one at-risk species. The Massif de la Hotte region of Haiti, for example, is home to 13 species of endangered or critically endangered amphibian.

The researchers limited their study to mammals, birds, selected reptiles, amphibians, and conifer trees, because these were the creatures for which sufficient information was available.

"Known species in these groups form less than one percent of all species we are pretty sure exist in the world," Ricketts said. "The vast majority [of species] we've not named, and of ones we have names for, for most we have no good information on where they live."

Pimm, who is a member of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, said the creatures identified in the study represent only about 1/1000 of all species on the planet.

Steps taken to protect these 794 known species in imminent danger of extinction will therefore protect a thousand times more species of fungi, plants, and insects that likely live in the same places.

"That adds bang for the buck," Ricketts said. He added that the research is intended to "put a face on the extinction crisis. These are the places where extinction will most likely strike next for the [groups of life-forms] we know."

Extended Threat

The research also highlights a shift from historic extinction trends, Ricketts said.

A majority of recently recorded extinctions were birds that went kaput on islands. For example, the dodo, a large, flightless bird, famously went extinct in the late 17th century on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

Modern day Mauritius shows up in the study as home to two endangered bird species—the Rodrigues warbler and the Pink pigeon—and a critically endangered mammal—the Rodrigues flying fox.

Today the so-called extinction crisis has expanded to mainland areas rich in biodiversity, where a host of amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and plants are now threatened.

Only 39 percent of the species identified in the study are island dwellers, down from 80 percent of recent extinctions.

And only a third of the identified sites have legal protection. Most are surrounded by intense human development—chopped forests, drained wetlands, crisscrossing roads, introduced diseases, and suburban sprawl.

According to Pimm, the extinction shift reflects the European pattern of colonization: Islands were settled first and thus first faced the ravages of humankind. Now that the mainland interiors are becoming settled, species there are feeling the impact.

Ensuring the long-term survival of these species will often take more than protecting their habitats. But Ricketts says doing so complements broader efforts to combat global warming and loss of species diversity.

And steps taken to protect species "dangling on the edge" will also protect untold others and conserve habitats, such as mountain forests, that capture and supply water to lowland farms and cities.

Beyond the bonus benefits, Ricketts said, "There are many people who think—I'm one of them—that preventing extinctions is simply the right thing to do."

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