A new study suggests that mass extinction is unfolding as we speak, making this the sixth-largest mass extinction the world has ever experienced over the past half-billion years. What's worse is scientists say this could lead to “biological annihilation.”
Calling the period we live in “more severe than perceived,” researchers from Stanford University and the National Autonomous University of Mexico claim that population trends among half of the world's terrestrial vertebrates — or 27,600 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles — show that even species that are at low risk of extinction are experiencing an “extremely high degree of population decay.” And what's worse, both temperate regions and the tropics are seeing the same or higher rate of extinction, CBS reports.
While at first glance this seems a bit difficult to grasp, researchers said that the cascading consequences could be significant for the ecosystem, negatively impacting the systems necessary for human life to sustain itself.
“Earth is experiencing a huge episode of population declines and extirpations,” meaning that species are simply being wiped out of certain locations, the study suggests. As a result, what we are witnessing is “biological annihilation.”
Still, researchers insist that even if species don't literally disappear from the Earth over time, it doesn't take much to impact the world as a whole as populations decline.
“This paper makes the point that it's not just about extinction — it's about declines in populations. A species doesn't have to go extinct for a variety of negative effects to be felt,” senior conservation scientist Robin Naidoo of the World Wildlife Fund said.
That point, he added, is “sometimes missed,” as people seem to concern themselves more with populations going extinct than populations in decline. As full populations of vertebrates decline, the effects are felt “on vegetation and habitat,” he added, putting full ecological networks in danger as they depend on the balance between plants, microorganisms, and animals.
As the decline is felt in nature, it is sure to be felt among humans. In no time, we will be feeling the impact economically as many communities that rely on fishing will begin to feel the effect of population changes before the rest of us. Africa, for instance, could lose $25 million per year as tourism will also decline as a result of the impact.
Unfortunately, the blame lies with humans, according to the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the past, mass extinctions were often associated with natural events of great proportions. Now, however, researchers say that what's driving the incredible decline in vertebrate populations is mankind.
According to Elizabeth Kolbert, author of "The Sixth Extinction," humans are leaving the planet “a much, much poorer place.”
To Kolbert and others, the fact so many species are disappearing at once shows that this problem is “the big issue of our time,” making it difficult for anyone who's truly concerned about the planet to remain silent.