• This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
  • Earth.Org Newsletters

    Get focused newsletters especially designed to be concise and easy to digest

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
SHOP Support

According to a recent analysis, the sixth mass extinction of wildlife on Earth is accelerating. More than 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction and are likely to be lost within 20 years; the same number were lost over the whole of the last century. The scientists say that without the human destruction of nature, this rate of loss would have taken thousands of years and they warn that this may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilisation. 

The analysis, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at data on 29,000 land vertebrate species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species and BirdLife International. The scientists identified 515 species with populations below 1,000 and about half of these had fewer than 250 individuals remaining. 

What is a Mass Extinction Event?

A mass extinction is usually defined as a loss of about three quarters of all species in existence across the entire Earth over a “short” geological period of time. Given the vast amount of time since life first evolved on the planet, “short” is defined as anything less than 2.8 million years.

The Analysis

The land vertebrates on the brink of extinction, with fewer than 1,000 individuals left, include the Sumatran rhino, the Española giant tortoise and the harlequin frog. Historic data for 77 of these species shows that they had lost 94% of their populations in the last century. Further, more than 400 vertebrate species became extinct in the last century, extinctions that would have taken up to 10,000 years in the normal course of evolution, illustrating humanity’s profound effect on the planet and those that live on it. 

The analysis also showed that 388 species of land vertebrates had populations under 5,000 individuals and 84% lived in the same regions as the species with populations under 1,000, creating the conditions for a domino effect. The scientists warned that ‘extinction breeds extinction’, where close ecological interactions of species on the brink tend to move other species towards extinction, creating the domino effect. 

You might also like: EU Pledges To Raise €20bn Annually to Boost Biodiversity

sixth mass extinction
A graph showing the number of species with fewer than 1,000 individuals and number of species whose conservation status had been evaluated by the IUCN. These are the species most likely to be lost in the sixth mass extinction event (Source: PNAS).


The scientists say that the ongoing sixth mass extinction may be the most serious environmental threat to the persistence of civilisation, because it is irreversible. They say that it is caused by an ever-increasing population and consumption rates. Further, species are links in ecosystems and, as they disappear, the species they interact with are likely to disappear as well.

When a species dies out, the Earth’s ability to maintain ecosystem services is eroded to a degree. Humanity needs a relatively stable climate, flows of fresh water, agricultural pest and disease-vector control and pollination for crops, all services that will be impacted as the sixth mass extinction accelerates. 

Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University and one of the researchers of the analysis, says, “When humanity exterminates other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system. The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a global emergency for governments and institutions, equal to the climate disruption to which it is linked.”

Consequences of the Sixth Mass Extinction

When the number of individuals in a population or species drops too low, its contributions to ecosystem functions and services become unimportant, its genetic variability and resilience is reduced and its contribution to human welfare may be lost. An example of this includes the overhunting of sea otters, the main predator of kelp-eating sea urchins. A population boom of urchins wreaked havoc on kelp forests in the Bering Sea, leading to the extinction of the kelp-eating Steller’s sea cow.

Another is the bison, which was a keystone species in North America. At one time, it was maintaining the entire ecosystem, supplying meat, robes and fertilisers to Native Americans, and later to Europeans. Is it estimated that 200 years ago, there were 30 to 60 million individuals, but overharvesting for meat and skins and land conversion for farming decimated most populations. By 1844, there were 325 individuals left. They have since recovered to 4,000 wild bison and 500,000 living in enclosures, but the species has not reclaimed its ecological role and its habitats- the prairies- have been mostly destroyed. 

Many endangered species are being affected by the wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, which poses a threat to human health, is a major cause of species extinction and is eroding the ecosystem services that are vital for our survival. The scientists note that the ban on wildlife trade imposed by the Chinese government could be a major conservation measure for many species on the verge of extinction if imposed properly. They propose including wild species for consumption as food as well as medicinal use and pets to curb the acceleration of the sixth mass extinction.

Previous Mass Extinction Events

There have been five mass extinction events during the last 450 million years, each destroying 70-95% of the species of plants, animals and microorganisms that existed previously. These events were caused by massive volcanic eruptions, depletion of ocean oxygen or collision with an asteroid. In each event, it took millions of years to regain the numbers of species comparable to those before the extinction event.

As such, an estimated 2% of the species that ever lived are alive today. Species extinction rates are today hundreds of thousands of times faster than the ‘normal’ rates occurring in the last tens of millions of years. The losses that we are seeing have mostly occurred since our ancestors developed agriculture 11 000 years ago. 

Can We Stop the Sixth Mass Extinction?

The scientists also propose classifying all species with less than 5 000 individuals as critically endangered on the IUCN list as well as implementing a global comprehensive binding agreement requiring parties to address the extinction crisis, especially through tackling the illegal and legal wildlife trade. 

Mark Wright, the director of science at WWF, says, “The numbers in this research are shocking. However, there is still hope. If we stop the land-grabbing and devastating deforestation in countries such as Brazil, we can start to bend the curve in biodiversity loss and climate change. But we need global ambition to do that.”

Humanity relies on biodiversity for its health and wellbeing. The recent COVID-19 pandemic is an example of the dangers of interfering with and damaging the natural world. The scientists urge that a booming human population, destruction of habitats, wildlife trade, pollution and the climate crises must all be urgently tackled. 

There is time to save species, but the window of opportunity is almost closed. We must save what we can, or lose the opportunity to do so forever. There will likely be more pandemics in the future if we continue destroying habitats and trading wildlife for consumption. The fate of humanity and most living species is at stake; it is therefore imperative that we act now. 

In the arctic tundra of northeastern Siberia lies a graveyard of a now – extinct species of megafauna, the woolly rhino, dating back 50,000 years. Now, a new genomic analysis of the remains of 14 of these fantastical furry yellow creatures shows that climate change was the likely culprit for their disappearance—not hunting by migrating humans, as scientists had assumed.

“We can say that climate probably did have a huge role in the woolly rhino declining and going extinct,” said paleogeneticist Edana Lord of Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History, lead author of the recent study in Current Biology. However, Lord and her colleagues cannot rule out human activity as a contributing factor in the rhinos’ final years.

Woolly rhinos (Coelodonta antiquitatis), predecessors to the modern-day Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), roamed Siberia tens of thousands of years ago. Both the arrival of humans in their range and a climate warming period, known as the Bølling-Allerød interstadial, coincide with the disappearance of these ancient SUV-sized animals.

Scientists obtained 14 specimens in the form of 12 bones, a mummified tissue biopsy, and a hair sample. By determining the full DNA sequence of one of these remains, and the maternal DNA sequence of all 14, researchers hoped to expose key parts of their history.

You might also like: Europe’s Most Invasive Species Identified- Study

They zeroed in on mitochondrial DNA—DNA passed through the mother—which revealed a diverse rhino family tree. However, if hunting or other human activity had decimated their population, their genetic diversity would have declined noticeably, Lord said.

Instead, the species’ number remained constant until close to their extinction, and long after humans migrated into their range. The team’s specimens date as recently as 18,500 years ago; the species persisted another 4,500 years.

Further analysis of the rhinos’ genetic mutations over time pointed to evolutionary adaptations driven by the changing climate. In 89 genes, scientists found changes that likely led to cold-adapted traits. Such adaptations suggest that woolly rhinos were adjusted to a cold environment and could not adapt to a warmer, wetter climate.

Despite these clues, researchers can’t rule out that humans played a part. While woolly rhinos and humans appeared to live in harmony for thousands of years, early human settlers in Siberia were nomadic. Once the nomads created permanent settlements, changes in food sources and habitat could have harmed the rhino population—but genetic data alone is unlikely to show this.

“Whether or not they were actually killed or hunted by humans is very difficult to tell,” said wildlife geneticist Alfred L. Roca of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved in the study.

To even suspect human interaction, Roca said, researchers would have to find remains that “looked like they were butchered by humans,” as was the case with woolly mammoths. “Whether humans at the end had something to do with [the woolly rhino extinction] is an open question, only because humans have had so much to do with driving other species extinct,” he noted.

The rapid warming period 14,000 years ago mirrors our planet’s inflamed temperatures now. Finding intact specimens of animals from such eras provides clues about what might be in store for species today—including us. However, uncovering these samples is rare, and isolating their fragile DNA is no easy feat. For instance, fragments of bone, like those used by Lord and her team, often degrade over time and become contaminated with bacterial DNA as they decompose.

Despite these challenges, Lord is passionate about the impact her research has on illuminating both our past and our present. “I like bringing these extinct creatures to life,” she said. “How past climate impacted species is incredibly important for how future climate is going to impact species.”

Featured image by: Albert Protopopov for Mongabay

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Carolina Cuellar Colmenares, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

Extinction Rebellion (XR for short) describes itself as an “international, non-violent civil disobedience activist movement” which is working to “halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse.” The organisation was first launched in 2018 with chapters in dozens of countries around the world that are also wanting their governments to address the climate crisis. Their logo is an hourglass inside a circle, to represent time running out for many species. 

XR Values

In the UK, Extinction Rebellion has three main demands:

While the UK has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, achieving it by 2025 is extremely ambitious and would require virtually every industry to change immediately- severe restrictions on flying would be needed, diets would have to change and there would have to be a massive increase in renewable energy, among other changes. 

Extinction Rebellion doesn’t say what the solutions to address the climate crisis should be. Instead, it wants the government to create a “citizens’ assembly,” composed of randomly selected people from a cross-section of society, who would decide how to solve the climate crisis, with advice from experts. 

In April 2019, Extinction Rebellion held a large demonstration in central London and other cities around the world. The activists aimed to “peacefully occupy the centres of power and shut them down.” Some activists glued themselves to government buildings and others locked themselves in public facilities. The protest lasted for 11 days and more than 1 100 arrests were made. 

You might also like: Colorifix: How This Company Is Using Bacteria to Green the Fashion Industry

extinction rebellion
Extinction Rebellion protesters in London 19th of April 2019 ( Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Can These Demands Be Met? 

Extinction Rebellion’s protests in April have partly pressured the councils and local authorities in the UK to declare a climate emergency. However, despite the increased acknowledgement that climate change is the biggest challenge faced by humanity, little has changed in terms of action. “We have seen no truth nor action,” said Extinction Rebellion, expressing concern about the lack of progress. 

Who Supports Extinction Rebellion? 

According to a survey of 3 000 people conducted by YouGov in April, 47% of those aged 18 to 24 either “strongly supported” or “somewhat supported” the disruption of traffic and public transport to highlight Extinction Rebellion’s aims, compared to 36% of those aged 50-65 and 28% of over-65s.

A new paper has found that more than half of the planet’s turtle and tortoise species are threatened with extinction. While the paper offers recommendations to reverse this trend, the threats facing these iconic animals- including the climate crisis and loss of habitat- are far-reaching and difficult to overcome. 

Turtles and Tortoises in Trouble 

On the island of Madagascar, locked gates, razor-wire fences, and 24-hour armed guards protect one of the world’s rarest treasures. That treasure, worth roughly $50,000 each on the black market, is the last wild population of the critically endangered ploughshare tortoise, the rarest tortoise on the planet.

The ploughshare tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora) is emblematic of a growing crisis: more than half of the world’s turtle and tortoise species are now threatened with extinction.

A group of 51 global turtle and tortoise experts has published a new paper in Current Biology on the extinction risks for these iconic animals. Threats include the pet trade, overconsumption for food and medicine, loss of habitat, pollution, invasive species, and climate change. The group also offers recommendations to reverse the decline.

Of the 360 known turtle and tortoise species, 187 are threatened, according to the IUCN Red List criteria. Of these, 127 are endangered or critically endangered. Many could go extinct this century.

“It is overwhelming when it’s all put together,” said Kristin Berry, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) wildlife biologist and co-author of the paper who has studied tortoises for more than 40 years.

Why Are Turtle and Tortoise Species at Risk of Extinction?

Turtles and tortoises grow slowly, mature late, and live a long time. This slow and steady lifestyle strategy has served them well for millions of years, but now, in the face of modern pressures, it can be a big liability.

Young turtles are highly vulnerable to many different predators, and only a small percentage survive into adulthood. Turtles that do survive may live a long time (some up to 200 years). Most females lay eggs well into their final years. This lifetime of egg-laying ensures that enough hatchlings will survive to keep the population afloat.

Removing an adult female turtle from the wild also removes the hundreds to thousands of eggs it might have laid during its lifetime. If enough of them disappear, the population collapses. And once depleted, turtles and tortoise populations are very slow to recover, if they recover at all.

In May 2020, Mexican authorities confiscated more than 15,000 freshwater turtles illegally bound for the pet trade in China. Though this was the largest confiscation of turtles ever reported, the story is not a new one.

In southern Madagascar, agents rescued almost 11,000 critically endangered radiated tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) from a house in 2018. The same year, researchers found 65 different tortoise and freshwater turtle species for sale in markets in Jakarta, Indonesia and nearly half of these were threatened with extinction.

For the world’s 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles, trade exploitation is the largest threat. International trade in turtles and tortoises is most common in East Asia. Legal and illegal trade networks coming primarily out of North America, Europe and Africa supply markets with turtles and tortoises for use in food and traditional medicine and as pets.

You might also like: How Relevant is the ‘Native vs Invasive’ Argument in a Warming World?

turtle tortoise extinction
Native to Madagascar, the critically endangered Radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) is threatened by poaching for the pet trade. Photo by Turtle Conservancy/Eric Goode.

The demand for turtles and tortoises as pets is growing, primarily in Asia. Rare species are seen as status symbols and collectors’ items and are sold for hundreds to thousands of dollars. Authorities estimate millions of freshwater turtles and tortoises are exported from North America, Europe and Africa each year. Turtle farms supply a vast number of animals to markets, but many are still captured in the wild.

Turtle farming for food and medicinal markets is an enormous industry. In Southeast Asia, hundreds of millions of Chinese softshell turtles (Pelodiscus sinensis) are bred for the table. Asian box turtles, such as the Chinese three-striped box turtle (Cuora trifasciata), are both captive bred and collected from the wild for their supposed medicinal value. More than 1,500 turtle farms exist in southern China alone.

In some cases, turtle farms are used to disguise illegal activities. A farm may supplement its stock with wild-caught populations and lie about the origins to circumvent laws. Farms also engage in “turtle laundering.” For instance, if a tortoise is smuggled from Madagascar to China, it is no longer protected by native species laws in Madagascar and can be sold legally out of a Chinese turtle farm claiming it is captive-bred.

“While some species are farmed sustainably, the problem is that turtle farms don’t always limit themselves to those turtles. They also continue to take turtles from the wild and then call them captive-bred, but they’re really not,” said Craig Stanford, first author of the paper, professor at the University of Southern California and the chair of the IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group.

Loss of habitat is the biggest threat to turtles and tortoises globally, according to the paper. The leading cause of terrestrial habitat loss is the conversion of land for commercial agriculture. Logging and livestock grazing in wildlands also contribute to declines, as does habitat fragmentation from the expansion of towns, cities and roads.

Aquatic turtles face threats from river diversions, loss of wetlands, and landscape fragmentation. Dredging underwater logs and snags for recreational boating also eliminates habitat for freshwater turtles. They are particularly vulnerable to changes in water quality from dam construction, siltation, sand mining, sewage runoff, and pollution from industry and agriculture.

Turtles’ long lives make them vulnerable to the pollution accumulated in the environment over time. For females that spend their lives on lake and river bottoms, exposure to toxins that accumulate in sediments, such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and heavy metals, can reduce the survivability of their offspring.

Commercial fisheries often accidentally catch aquatic turtles. Better fishery management practices such as the use of turtle exclusion devices have been successful, but are still not used everywhere. One study estimated that, along the East Coast of the U.S., crab traps kill 15% to 78% of local diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) populations each year.

Invasive plants and animals bring disease, parasites and competition to turtles.  Bacteria and viruses such as herpes and ranaviruses are on the rise and causing die-offs in turtle populations. The introduced, invasive European red fox (Vulpes vulpes) has devastated Australia’s native turtle populations. Human development increases the population of predators such as pied crows (Corvus albus) and common ravens (Corvus corax), the latter of which prey heavily on Mojave Desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) in the southwestern United States.

Scientists are still uncovering the effects of climate change on turtles and tortoises since their long lives make changes over populations harder to study. Still, the paper’s authors say droughts, changes in water cycles, habitat degradation, and rising sea temperatures are all taking a toll on turtle populations around the world.

What Can Be Done?

Preventing turtle extinctions this century requires protecting their remaining habitat, the authors write, particularly limited nesting habitats. They found the majority of turtles and tortoises on Earth could be protected by safeguarding 16 hotspots that cover 16% of the Earth’s land surface.

“Why are they declining? Why are they in trouble? The problem is the failure of the regulatory agencies to take action,” Berry told Mongabay. “I think that if a country, such as the USA, can put a man on the moon then they’re perfectly capable of recovering these endangered and threatened species.”

Ending the trade of wild turtles for food, medicine and pets is also an important part of a global conservation strategy. CITES regulates trade by restricting international transport of the threatened turtle and tortoise species listed in its appendices. But legal loopholes remain. The researchers urge the enforcement of existing laws, the enactment of new laws closing loopholes, and increased public awareness.

Fortunately for turtle and tortoise species, many can breed in captivity, hopefully bringing them back from the brink of extinction. Captive breeding programs have brought species such as the Hood Island tortoise (Chelonoidis hoodensis), one of the dozen species of famed Galápagos giant tortoises, back from the brink of extinction. But for some species, such as the ploughshare tortoise, putting them back in the wild is futile until conditions become safe for release. Until then, the genetics of captive populations have to be managed to prevent issues like inbreeding depression.

“Even if we breed them in captivity, we can’t put them back in the wild because they’ll just be poached for pet trade again because they’re so valuable,” Stanford said. “So even turtle farming is exacerbating this problem. How do you stop illegal trade when the value of an individual animal is many, many lifetime incomes for the people who are stealing them?”

Sea turtles are a conservation success story. Nesting is on the rise for most of these favorite marine species around the globe. Experts attribute this to better fishery practices, enforcement of laws aimed at curbing hunting and trade of sea turtles and their eggs, and dedicated conservation effortsThese charismatic creatures receive much attention and funding in the turtle conservation world.

To increase their odds of survival, headstarting programs collect turtle eggs from beaches, put them in hatcheries, and keep hatchlings in captivity until they reach a certain size and aren’t as appetizing for other marine creatures. These programs have had some success, reviving populations of turtles such as the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) and the diamondback terrapin.

Conservation programs like headstarting have seen greater success when local people are engaged as stakeholders and informed about the issues, according to previous studies. Strong partnerships with both local communities and governments support conservation projects.

Berry said individuals also have a role to play in safeguarding the health and survival of turtles and tortoises worldwide by being aware of the risks involved in the pet, food and medicine trades, keeping dogs under control in important turtle habitats, and keeping off-road vehicles away from sensitive beaches and desert areas where turtles roam and nest.

Even clothing choices can affect turtles; research shows microplastics and synthetic fibers harm marine turtles and often end up in their guts. Up to a third of microplastics are generated from washing clothing and textiles made from synthetic materials such as acrylic and polyester.

Despite the threats, only one species and three taxa have gone extinct in the past 200 years, while at least three species have been brought back from near-extinction. This, the researchers say, is a reason for hope.

“On the whole, I’m optimistic,” Stanford said. “Pessimism in conservation is counterproductive.”

“I’d like to think that in the early 21st century, we’re living through a bottleneck in which earth’s biodiversity is being contracted, but that we will get through this bottleneck and most of Earth’s biodiversity, including turtle and tortoise biodiversity, will be protected into the 22nd century and beyond. That’s my bottom-line philosophy at all times.”

Featured image by: Mongabay

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Liz Kimbrough, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.


There is only one photo of the smooth handfish: an image of a withered, yellowing specimen with pectoral fins that extend like arms, and a triangular crest attached to the top of its head. Sometime between 1800 and 1804, French zoologist François Péron plucked this fish out of the ocean while voyaging through Australia, presumably in the shallow coastal waters of southeastern Tasmania. Since then, no other smooth handfish (Sympterichthys unipennis) has ever been spotted, and the fish that Péron collected became the holotype for the entire species. In March 2020, the IUCN officially declared the handfish species to be extinct.

The loss of this species may seem insignificant, especially since it hasn’t been seen for about 200 years, but it’s a noteworthy event: the smooth handfish is actually the first marine, bony fish to go extinct in modern times. While it could be argued that the New Zealand grayling (Prototroctes oxyrhynchus) was actually the first oceanic fish to die out, the grayling was migratory and spawned in freshwater, so wasn’t an exclusively marine fish.

Jessica Meeuwig, a professor at the University of Western Australia and director of the university’s Centre for Marine Futures, told Mongabay that the smooth handfish likely disappeared due to habitat loss and destructive fishing practices like scallop trawling, and that the species’ extinction is “indicative of broader problems in how we continue to manage our oceans.”

“Some claim that the ocean is too vast for marine wildlife to go extinct,” Meeuwig said in an email. “But ocean industrialisation from fishing, mining, oil and gas exploration, shipping and infrastructure development is catching up with the scale of industrialisation on land and with it the risk of extinction for marine wildlife.”

You might also like: Rhino Poaching in South Africa Halves in First Half of 2020

handfish extinct
The Ziebell’s handfish, a critically endangered species, hasn’t been spotted since 2007. Image by Andrew Green for Mongabay.

There are 13 other handfish species still living in Australian waters. While they come in many different shapes and sizes, handfish are characterized by their ability to “walk” on the seafloor with their pectoral and pelvic fins. They don’t have swim bladders to help control their buoyancy, so walking is their preferred source of transport. Handfish also have flamboyant antenna-like illiciums growing out of the top of their head to help lure prey.

But these strange-looking, ambulatory fish are threatened with extinction due to habitat decline, pollution, destructive fishing practices, and predation by invasive species such as Northern Pacific seastars (Asterias amurensis). Four handfish species are considered endangered, including the cockatoo handfish (Pezichthys amplispinus), narrowbody handfish (Pezichthys compressus), pink handfish (Brachiopsilus dianthus), and the Moulton’s handfish (Sympterichthys moultoni). Three others are critically endangered: the spotted handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus), red handfish (Thymichthys politus), and the Ziebell’s handfish (Brachiopsilus ziebelli). There’s insufficient data on the rest of the handfish species to accurately assess their conservation status.

Only four of the 13 handfish species have been spotted in the past 20 years, according to Jemina Stuart-Smith, a research fellow at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and manager of the Handfish Conservation Project. She told Mongabay this raises grave concerns about the species’ survival. One lost species is the critically endangered Ziebell’s handfish that lives on rocky reefs in the Tasman Peninsula. It hasn’t been spotted since 2007, and the team at the Handfish Conservation Project are urging the public to report any possible sightings in the last five years.

“Survey effort around Tasmania as part of a larger marine monitoring programs has resulted in more than 7653 underwater surveys since the early 1990s in Red and Ziebell’s habitat,” Stuart-Smith said in an email. “None [no Ziebell’s handfish] have been observed at additional sites from these surveys.”

While the Ziebell’s handfish is missing, conservationists are currently using a number of techniques to try and protect the other critically endangered handfish, the red and the spotted. This includes habitat restoration and management, public awareness campaigns, and the consideration of starting a captive-breeding program, according to Stuart-Smith. Scientists are also trying to learn as much as they can about the species to inform these conservation efforts.

“I think people should be concerned about the extinction of any species, especially ones that humans are likely to have caused,” Stuart-Smith said. “We don’t know enough about handfish to know what their ecological role is [and if extinction] will impact the ecosystems that they are a part [of], or whether it [the underlying causes] will lead to other extinctions. The Smooth handfish became extinct before we had a chance to study them.”

“Whilst most have not heard of the handfish, it is emblematic of the need to effectively protect marine biodiversity,” Meeuwig said. “Whilst the smooth handfish is now permanently extinct, placing 30% of the oceans in highly protected marine parks, secure from exploitation, as recommended by much of the scientific community … will help ensure other marine wildlife does not follow the fate of the smooth handfish, with the additional benefit of building ocean resilience in the face of climate change.”

Featured image by: Rick Stuart-Smith for Mongabay.

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.


A new global assessment by the UN warns that one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, calling this a ‘global nature crisis’. To slow this loss, experts from the UK and Germany have suggested that a feasible target to reduce mass extinction would be less than 20 extinctions a year, and say that this goal should be applied to all known species in the animal kingdom.

The UN said late last year that 2020 would be a ‘make or break year’ for the environment, in which key international meetings were set to be held to discuss pressing environmental issues for the decade ahead, such as biodiversity loss- which is being lost at a rate 1000 times greater than at any time in recorded human history- and rising temperatures. Many of these have been cancelled or postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak that has rendered travel extremely difficult, if not impossible, and has diverted authorities to disease management and mitigation. 

With rapid globalisation, the increase in consumerism has wiped out the forests of the world: between 1980 and 2000, 100 million hectares of tropical forest were lost, mainly from cattle ranching in South America and palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia. Naturally, this has impacted those species that call these forests home, and according to the assessment, an average of around 25% of animals and plants are now threatened.

The researchers say that achieving this mass extinction target should ensure that natural systems continue to function and meet the needs of people and the rest of life on Earth.

You might also like: Sixth Mass Extinction of Wildlife Accelerating- Study

According to Dr Kate Brauman from the University of Minnesota and lead author of the study, we are now living in a time when the rate of biodiversity loss is unparalleled. Amidst the daily hustle and trading in markets, we forget that it is these very species that create the foundation of food chains and energy chains that are essential to our survival as well. To make matters worse, every year we dump 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes into the waters of the world. Plastic pollution has increased ten-fold since 1980, and as such, we are producing a mountain of waste.

One of the major drivers of such biodiversity loss is land use. This entails repurposing grasslands or ancient woodlands into plantations for harvesting crops to satisfy commercial demand, and this practice is particularly prevalent in the tropics. Increasing agricultulture has come at the expense of forests, due to the increased demand for food, especially meat as 70% of agriculture is related to meat production. The same can be said for our oceans, which face immense pressure from fishing. Because of unsustainable and harmful fishing practices -in 2015, 33% of fish stocks were harvested at unsustainable levels- live coral cover on reefs has nearly halved over the past 150 years.

Further, a recent analysis says that the sixth mass extinction of wildlife on Earth is accelerating. More than 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction and are likely to be lost within 20 years; the same number were lost over the whole of the last century. The scientists say that without the human destruction of nature, this rate of loss would have taken thousands of years and they warn that this may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilisation.

The dire situation has highlighted the need for the world to work toward a common goal of reducing biodiversity loss, and the proposed mass extinction target may be one way to do this. “Progress on biodiversity loss has been far too slow, limited or ineffective,” says Georgina Mace, ecologist scientist and professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystems at UCL, London. Moreover, scientists have long warned that close contact with wild animals through hunting, trade or habitat loss puts the world at increased risk of outbreaks of new diseases, as seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, that spread to humans through contact with animals, possibly a pangolin or a bat. This has seen widespread closures of nature parks around the world, which has meant a lack of staff and surveillance of protected areas, which has created favourable conditions for poachers and illegal wild animal traders to operate undetected.


Koalas may become extinct by 2050 without urgent government intervention, according to a report published by the Parliament of New South Wales (NSW). The report, a year-long inquiry into one of the country’s most beloved native species, presents a ‘dark and depressing snapshot’ of the situation for koalas in Australia’s southeastern state. 

How Many Koalas are Left?

The report says that even prior to the most recent  bushfires in 2019/2020, koalas in NSW were already endangered species. Population numbers were estimated to be 36 000, but these were considered to be ‘outdated and unreliable’. 

Of the 1 billion animals killed by the catastrophic bushfires, an estimated 6 382 koalas perished, 15% of the marsupial’s population in NSW alone. More than 12 million acres of land burned across NSW, and close to 45 million acres across Australia. Conservation and environmental groups say that the fires resulted in the loss of more than 80% of koala habitats, pushing the animals into ‘functional extinction’. 

Josey Sharrad, an International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) wildlife campaigner, says that koalas are particularly vulnerable to bushfires as they are slow moving, reproduce slowly and often only give birth to one joey at a time and live in eucalyptus trees that burn quickly and intensely. She added that when fires sweep through their homes, they often don’t have time to escape, particularly in intense crown fires that rage through the treetops where they live. 

The combination of deforestation, the climate crisis and ongoing droughts in the region continue to threaten koalas’ unique habitat, the eucalyptus forests in the southeastern and eastern parts of the continent on which they rely for both habitat and food

The exact numbers of koala populations across Australia are unknown, but the IFAW report puts the number of koalas in NSW at about 42 500.

You might also like: The Climate Crisis is Making Forests Grow Younger and Shorter- Study

A ‘Koala Crisis’ 

Philip Spark, a wildlife ecologist, worries about a koala crisis that is being overlooked due to a lack of awareness and warning: “with the trees dying and the streams drying there is a recipe for disaster. Koalas are really on the brink of not surviving.” It is therefore of great importance that urgent action is taken in order to protect the koalas in Australia, and to conserve the environment in which they inhabit, before irreversible damage prevails. 

Conservation Recommendations 

Cate Faehrmann, Greens MLC and committee chair of the NSW parliament, says, “the strategies and policies currently in place to protect the koala aren’t working, like the NSW Koala Strategy, which fails in ensuring enough koala habitat is protected for the different koala populations across the state.”

Members of the NSW legislative council made 42 recommendations to prevent koalas from becoming extinct, including conserving koala habitats, establishing more detailed approaches to monitoring koala numbers, and calling on the government to allot additional resources and funds with the aim of restoring koala habitats across Australia. 

A report published by the IPCC says that by 2050, once-in-a-century events are expected to occur every year with 50 degree Celsius heatwaves in the next 20 years. The researchers stress that the climate crisis will not affect the quality and abundance of their food and habitat, but will also compound the severity of other impacts, such as droughts and bushfires. If we do not correct our invasive relationship with nature, koalas are just one of the animals that will be extinct by 2050. 

The end of the Permian period, some 252 million years ago at a time when land masses were still combined in the supercontinent of Pangaea, marked the largest mass extinction of life in Earth’s fraught geological history. Over 70% of terrestrial and 96% of marine species were wiped out during the “Great Dying”.

What causes mass extinction?

The exact origin of the what made oceans inhospitable to life has been a subject of debate, but new research sheds light on the concatenation of climactic events that ensued and draws parallels with our modern climate change predicaments.

Academics from Stanford University and University of Washington suggest in a piece published on Science that a dramatic warming of global temperatures caused mass extinction in the oceans possibly originating from a series of cataclysmic volcanic eruptions in Siberia.

“This is the first time we have made a mechanistic prediction about what caused the extinction that can be directly tested with the fossil record, which then allows us to make predictions about the causes of extinction in the future,” said Justin Penn, an oceanographer from the University of Washington.

Researchers developed a climate model displaying Earth’s conditions during the Permian period, when ocean temperatures and oxygen levels were similar to today’s.  

You might also like: Tropical Forests Are Losing Their Ability to Store Carbon

Percentage of marine animals that went extinct at the end of the Permian era by latitude, from the model (black line) and the fossil record (blue dots). A greater % of marine animals survived in the tropics than at the poles. The colour shows temperature change, with red being most severe warming and yellow less warming.

At the top is the supercontinent Pangaea, with massive volcanic eruptions emitting carbon dioxide. Below the line, the images represents some of the 96% of marine species that died during the event. Images: E. Haeckel; W. Kaveney; HP Fjeld; ©2010 J. White/CalPhotos. Credit: J. Penn, C. Deutsch/University of Washington.

The team then increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the climate model to the level required to raise tropical ocean surface temperatures by 10°C (as it occurred during the Permian period).

Consequences were dramatic: oceans would have lost about 80% of their oxygen. At deeper depths, around half of the ocean’s seafloor would have become completely oxygen-free.

How would contemporary species cope with such a dramatic turnaround? Researchers measured the oxygen and temperature sensitivities of 61 marine animals – including corals crustaceans, fish, shellfish and sharks.

Their tolerance to high temperature and low oxygen is remarkably similar to their Permian counterparts, as they had evolved under similar pre-cataclysmic environmental conditions.

Geographically, the organisms hardest hit by oxygen changes were those located in cooler waters. While many species that lived in the tropics also went extinct in the model, those at the poles were almost completely wiped out.

“Very few marine organisms stayed in the same habitats they were living in – it was either flee or perish,” said Curtis Deutsch from the University of Washington.

To verify the findings, Jonathan Payne and Erike Sperling from Stanford University analysed late-Permian fossil distributions from an archive of published fossil collections. Fossil records, which include data species’ geographical distribution before and after the cataclysmic upheavals, confirm that species far from the equator suffered most during the event.

“Since tropical organisms’ metabolisms were already adapted to fairly warm, lower-oxygen conditions, they could move away from the tropics and find the same conditions somewhere else,” Deutsch said. “But if an organism was adapted for a cold, oxygen-rich environment, then those conditions ceased to exist in the shallow oceans.”

It took millions of years for the biosphere to regenerate and diversify.

While global warming leading to insufficient oxygen was the cause of over 50% of the marine diversity losses, the authors believe that other changes, such as ocean acidification or shifts in the productivity of photosynthetic organisms, are likely contributing factors.

The study’s conclusions hold a cautionary tale. The calamitous shocks that upended life on Earth in the Permian period were steeper and more dramatic than those we are currently witnessing with man-made global warming. Yet, rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere leading to warmer temperatures mimic – albeit at a slower pace – the remote past.

“Under a business-as-usual emissions scenarios, by 2100 warming in the upper ocean will have approached 20% of warming in the late Permian, and by the year 2300 it will reach between 35 – 50%,” said Penn.

“This study highlights the potential for the sixth mass extinction arising from a similar mechanism under anthropogenic climate change.”


J. L. Penn, C. Deutsch, J. L. Payne, E. A. Sperling. “Temperature-dependent hypoxia explains biogeography and severity of end-Permian marine mass extinction”. Science. December 2018.

University of Washington. “Biggest mass extinction caused by global warming leaving ocean animals gasping for breath”. Science Daily. December 2018.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Hand-picked stories once a fortnight. We promise, no spam!

Instagram @earthorg Follow Us