Thursday, July 12, 2012

Silent Declines: Recognising Unlisted ‘Endangered’ Species

by Craig Costion, Post Doctoral Research Fellow at James Cook University and Andrew Lowe, Professor of Plant Conservation Biology at University of Adelaide, on The Conversation:
Only 5% of the world's plants, and 1% of invertebrates have been assessed under IUCN guidelines.
If an entire forest falls and its occupants approach extinction, does anybody hear it?

Since for the vast majority of species, the answer is most likely no, we decided to be proactive and recently published a study about a poorly-studied island in the western Pacific, Palau.

Along with archaeologist Jolie Liston, we used the island as a model for developing a new method for rapidly assessing the extinction threat to multiple species at the same time. Why did we do this? Well, read on.

Today we use the term “endangered species” to highlight organisms with a perilous survival trajectory, and to heighten our senses to the potential of their extinction.

But the conservation of “endangered” species is a tricky business. To start with, the term “endangered” generally applies to a species that is at risk of extinction - but in practise it has several definitions.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists species as “endangered” only if they qualify for a specific set of criteria.

Both Australia and New Zealand have national legislation based on the IUCN system but other countries, such as the United States, have a completely different process for defining an “endangered” species.

Other systems, such as NatureServe, use different terminology (“imperiled” instead of “endangered”) to avoid confusion with the specific criteria and political connotations of the former systems.

Although this may seem like a nit-picking technicality, it’s well known that the majority of the world’s species are found in tropical or developing countries, many of which do not have legally-binding systems for listing and protecting “endangered” species.

Recent studies - our own included - have shown that the system used to classify threat has a very big influence on which species make it to the endangered species list.

Indeed, concerns have been raised that the most widely adopted and promoted system in such countries, the IUCN Red List, does not treat all species as equal.


To date, only 5% of the world’s plants, and 1% of invertebrates have been assessed under IUCN guidelines, compared to 100% of mammals, 100% of birds and 94% of the world’s amphibians. These are alarming figures considering a recent study that indicated one out of every five plants is at risk of extinction.

Thus the specific classification system utilised is likely to have a huge impact on the ultimate conservation efforts dedicated towards specific species.

Many people, when they hear the word “endangered species”, may think of iconic animals such as the tiger, rhino, or panda.

But what about other, less charismatic, creatures, such as endemic snails, insects, or rare trees and plants in the rainforest? How do they get noticed and protected?

Beyond the flagships

One of the leading NGOs working on threatened species, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), focuses its efforts on flagship species. The logic is that the protection of habitat for elephants, for example, would simultaneously protect a large area of habitat for other species too.

Certainly this is a reasonable approach in many areas but what does this mean for other less well-known species under equal or more severe threat, or for places such as oceanic islands that don’t have large mammals or iconic species?

Nearly everyone has heard of the island extinction of the dodo bird, but did you know that in Hawaii 900 of the 1,263 species (71%) of land snails and approximately 97 (8%) of land plants are believed to have gone extinct since humans colonised the islands?

Or that the largest palm tree to have ever existed, the Rapa Nui Palm, was driven to extinction along with the elimination of all other native trees by humans on Easter Island?

The majority of extinctions that take place seem to go unnoticed. But we can do better at sensing impending species extinctions even for those that are small, poorly known and/or unpopular.

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