Animals and plants are going extinct at an ‘unprecedented rate,’ shocking study says

A new study notes that animals and plants are dying at the fastest rate since the dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, with more than 500 species expected to be extinct in the next 20 years.

The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, notes that the accelerated decline is largely due to human activities, such as deforestation, overhunting and other human-linked activities. Almost 2 percent of all species the researchers analyzed, 515 in total, “are on the brink of extinction,” the researchers noted.

“When humanity exterminates populations and species of other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system,” said the study’s co-author, Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich, in a statement. “The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a national and global emergency for governments and institutions, equal to climate disruption to which it is linked.”

The Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is one of the most endangered mammals on Earth. Approximately 80 individuals remain in northern Sumatra, Indonesia, but poaching for their tusks and habitat loss threaten them with extinction. (Credit: Rhett Buttler/Mongabay)

The Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is one of the most endangered mammals on Earth. Approximately 80 individuals remain in northern Sumatra, Indonesia, but poaching for their tusks and habitat loss threaten them with extinction. (Credit: Rhett Buttler/Mongabay)

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For comparison purposes, it’s estimated that 543 species of land vertebrates went extinct in the entire 20th century.

In 2015, Ehrlich declared the sixth mass extinction event on the planet was already underway. In September 2019, a study revealed that a mass extinction event that took place 2 billion years ago killed 99 percent of all species on the planet.

The researchers specifically cited species such as the Sumatran rhino, the Clarion island wren, the Espanola Giant Tortoise and the Harlequin frog as examples that are particularly vulnerable to going extinct.

It is believed 80 Sumatran rhinos are left on Earth, living in northern Sumatra, Indonesia, according to World Wildlife Fund.

There are between 100 and 200 Espanola Giant Tortoises left on Earth. The species is considered “critically endangered” and is on IUCN’s Red List.

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The researchers also note that 84 percent of species with relatively small populations (under 5,000) live near species that have exceptionally small populations (under 1,000), putting constraints on the ecosystem that can cause a chain reaction. “Extinction breeds extinction,” the study authors write.

“What we do to deal with the current extinction crisis in the next two decades will define the fate of millions of species,” Gerardo Ceballos, the study’s lead author, added. “We are facing our final opportunity to ensure that the many services nature provides us do not get irretrievably sabotaged.”

A separate study published in February suggested that climate change could wipe out half of the planet’s animal and plant species by 2070.

The research noted that if temperatures rise 0.5 degrees Celsius around the globe, approximately half of the world’s species would become locally extinct. If temperatures were to rise 2.9 degrees Celsius, 95 percent of the species would become locally extinct.

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