More Than Half of European Trees Found Only in Europe Face Extinction

A horse chestnut tree
Photo: Jean Mottershead (Flickr)

A new assessment shows that more than half of the trees only found in Europe are at risk of extinction.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released a list of trees that are struggling to get by on the continent on Friday. Out of the 454 tree species native to Europe, two-fifths are regionally threatened with extinction. However, when looking at the species endemic to Europe—meaning they don’t exist anywhere else on the planet—58 percent face extinction mostly due to invasive species and pests. Some 15 percent are already critically endangered, which is the closest a species can be to extinction.

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“It is alarming that over half of Europe’s endemic tree species are now threatened with extinction,” Craig Hilton-Taylor, who leads the IUCN Red List Unit, said in a statement. “Trees are essential for life on earth, and European trees in all their diversity are a source of food and shelter for countless animal species such as birds and squirrels, and play a key economic role.”

Some of these tree species at risk include the Heberdenia excelsa, a shrub that can grow to the heights of a tree on the islands of Spain and Portugal that is dealing with severe habitat loss from wildfires and human use; Sorbus albensis, another shrub-like tree which bears orange-red fruits that have trouble growing in the changing forest of the northern Bohemia region of the Czech Republic; and the Serbian Spruce, a conifer that flowers distinct purple cones in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

The trees face a number of different threats, but “invasive or problematic species” sit at the top, per the new report. Pests, such as the leaf-miner moth that damages trees like the horse-chestnut, affect 38 percent of European tree species. Deforestation, wood harvesting, and urban development follow as major risk factors.

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Climate change, however, is a major threat, too. Its impacts still aren’t all that well-understood and could be underestimated, the report states. The report authors understand it’s a threat to all tree species, but it’s only included in the report where its impacts are already apparent—such as with the Serbian Spruce. Other recent research about the tree also indicates it could disappear in the “near future” without further interventions like assisted migration. Currently, climate change directly threatens about 50 tree species.

Any plants and trees imported into Europe need to be carefully vetted to ensure more pests aren’t entering the region, according to the Guardian. That’s especially true as countries look to trees as carbon sinks to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. Trees in Europe are but one victim to humans and the far-reaching impacts of our actions. Other species—from frogs to birds—are suffering, too. That’s on us.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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