Sixth mass extinction has begun

The world is experiencing its sixth mass extinction with animals disappearing 100 times faster than at any time since the dinosaurs’ demise. The bad news: humans are responsible. Ever worse: we could also be among the first victims.

The study, which was conducted by scientists in the United States and Mexico, “shows without any significant doubt that we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event,” said co-author Paul Ehrlich from Stanford University.

Extinction rates have reached levels unparalleled since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago and species are disappearing up to 100 times faster today than the normal rate between mass extinctions.

And humans are to blame. Population growth, per capita consumption and economic inequality have altered or destroyed natural habitats. The list of human impacts includes land clearing for farming, logging and settlement; introduction of invasive species; carbon emissions that are driving climate change and ocean acidification; and pollution that are poisoning ecosystems.

The human species “itself would likely disappear early on”, said lead author Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Autónoma de México.

As species disappear, crucial ecosystem services – honeybees’ crop pollination, wetlands’ water purification – also disappear, and the researchers warn that at the current rate of species loss, humans will lose many biodiversity benefits within three generations. As Ehrlich explains: “We are sawing off the limb that we are sitting on.”

The study calls for “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.”


Photo credit: Mike Shaver, flickr/Creative Commons

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