Last month’s huge extinction report showed the natural world is under siege. But the hits keep coming for nature and not in a good way.
New findings released in Nature Ecology and Evolution on Monday show that plants are dying at an alarming rate globally. Nearly 600 species have disappeared off the face of the Earth since Carl Linnaeus’ seminal 1753 book Species Plantarum due to ecosystem destruction, invasive diseases, human over-harvesting, and climate change. The researchers note that the rate of loss is 500 times faster than the background extinction rate.
The findings are based on a dataset of reports and research on seed-bearing plant species collected over three decades by researchers at the UK’s Royal Botanical Gardens. The dataset includes more than 330,000 plant species, and researchers analyzed it to track which species were declared extinct and which were rediscovered or recategorized. That analysis found that on the whole, 571 species have been wiped out. That’s more than four times the number of plant extinctions recorded by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, the gold standard for conservation metrics globally.
Many of the losses occurred on islands or other hard-to-reach places where unique plant populations have sprung up in response to their isolation. But plenty of others also occurred in places where humans have a heavy footprint. Hawaii—an island ecosystem with lots of people to boot—has seen the most documented extinctions with 79 plants disappearing while South Africa’s Cape provinces came in second with 37 species going kaput. Of all the extinctions chronicled, 315 have come since 1900 suggesting a quickening in the pace.
All of this is bad news, but reader, I’m sorry to inform you there are other concerns as well. Absolute extinction only tells part of the story of what’s happening to nature right now. There’s a trove of plant species that are functionally extinct, meaning only a few hundred specimens remain, putting the species as a whole on course for annihilation.
At the same time, humanity also has a choice for just how bad things get. Scientists have made it pretty clear that overconsumption is the root cause of the destruction of nature, leading to rainforests being clearcut and rising carbon emissions. Preserving plants and indeed the rest nature will mean changing our relationship with stuff and the ecosystems that sustain us.