Jun. 11, 2019 11:51AM EST Popular
Cyanea superba, endemic to the island of Oahu and now extinct in the wild. David Eickhoff / CC BY 2.0
Researchers have found that nearly 600 plant extinctions have taken place over the last two and a half centuries, according to a new paper published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.
The 571 proven plant extinctions lost since 1753 is twice the number of animal species lost in the same time frame and nearly four times as many plants lost as botanists recently estimated. The researchers with the Royal Botanic Gardens in the UK and Stockholm University also noted that many plant species disappeared without anyone ever knowing about them, pushing the true number of extinctions much higher.
The extinction rate — 500 times greater now than before the Industrial Revolution — is also quite alarming, according to The Guardian. This number, too, is likely an underestimate.
"This study is the first time we have an overview of what plants have already become extinct, where they have disappeared from and how quickly this is happening," said Aelys Humphreys, Ph.D., of Stockholm University, the BBC reported.
The paper documented all known plant extinctions in the world, finding that most lost plants were in the tropics and on islands. The researchers created a map that showed South Africa, Australia, Brazil, India, Madagascar and Hawaii as particular hotspots for plant extinction, according to The Guardian.
So what's causing the rapid rate of plant extinction? The main culprit is human activity like clear cutting forests for timber and converting land into fields for agriculture.
The researchers note that their paper also shows what lessons can be learned to stop future extinctions.
"Plants underpin all life on Earth," said Eimear Nic Lughadha, Ph.D., at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who was part of the research team, as The Guardian reported. "They provide the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat, as well as making up the backbone of the world's ecosystems – so plant extinction is bad news for all species."
Life on Earth relies on plants for oxygen and food. And, the extinction of one plant can lead to cascading effects that threaten to harm other species that rely on the plant for food or for a place to lay eggs, the BBC reports.
"Millions of other species depend on plants for their survival, humans included, so knowing which plants we are losing and from where, will feed back into conservation programs targeting other organisms as well," Nic Lughadha said, as the BBC reported.
The researchers highlighted steps to slow down plant extinctions including, recording all plants in the world, preserving specimens, funding botanists and educating children to recognize local plants, according to the BBC.
The research comes on the heels of other grim reports that have highlighted the destruction humans have caused. Last month, a UN report said that one million of Earth's eight million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction.
A new Trump administration rollback of EPA regulations could allow plants to emit two to ten times more hazardous air pollutants than before. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP via Getty Images
40 Percent of World's Plants at Risk of Extinction,
New Report FindsJordan Davidson
A grim new assessment of the world's flora and fungi has found that two-fifths of its species are at risk of extinction as humans encroach on the natural world, as The Guardian reported. That puts the number of species at risk near 140,000.
The new report, State of the World's Plants and Fungi 2020, and an accompanying short video were published by Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, and depict an international effort from hundreds of scientists from 42 countries who analyzed the health of thousands of animal species. The researchers looked at how people are interacting with plants, how plants and fungi are being used, and what opportunities people are missing, as The Irish Times reported.
The report highlights that plants are crucial to sustaining life as they provide food, medicine, raw materials, fuel and food. And yet, the report notes, "Never before has the biosphere, the thin layer of life we call home, been under such intensive and urgent threat. Deforestation rates have soared as we have cleared land to feed ever-more people, global emissions are disrupting the climate system, new pathogens threaten our crops and our health, illegal trade has eradicated entire plant populations, and non-native species are outcompeting local floras. Biodiversity is being lost – locally, regionally and globally."
The report notes that scientists are racing against the clock to rescue plant and fungi species and they are also working to figure out how to leverage plants and fungi to combat the climate crisis and food insecurity, according to the BBC.
When Kew issued its first report in 2016, it found that 20 percent of plant species were at risk. That number has doubled in just four years. However, that does not mean that twice as many plant species are at risk. Instead, the huge jump in percentage is due to advances in assessments that now make a more accurate account for plants that were over- or underrepresented in the 2016 report, according to The Irish Times.
The fact that 40 percent of plant species are at risk paints "a very worrying picture of risk and urgent need for action," according to Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, as The Irish Times reported.
"We are also losing the race against time, species are probably disappearing faster than we can find and name, and many of them could hold important clues for solving many of the pressing challenges of medicine and perhaps even some of the emerging or current pandemics," he added.
The scientists involved in the research noted that more than 4,000 plant and fungi species were discovered last year. These plants are an untapped resource that holds tremendous promise as food, medicine and biofuels, according to the paper, as The Guardian reported. Some of the new species discovered include members of the onion family, plants similar to spinach, and relatives of the staple crop cassava.
Around the world, billions depend on plants as their primary source of medicine. The report noted that 723 species used as therapeutic treatments are threatened with extinction.
"We would not be able to survive without plants and fungi. All life depends on them, and it is really time to open the treasure chest," said Antonelli, as The Guardian reported. "Every time we lose a species, we lose an opportunity for humankind."