Jan Zalasiewizc writes: Life on Earth is in trouble. That much we know. But how bad have things become – and how fast are events moving? How soon, indeed, before the Earth’s biological treasures are trashed, in what will be the sixth great mass extinction event? This is what Gerardo Caballos of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and his colleagues have assessed, in a paper that came out on Friday.
These are extraordinarily difficult questions. There are many millions of species, many elusive and rare, and inhabiting remote and dangerous places. There are too few skilled biologists in the field to keep track of them all. Demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt that any single species is extinct is arduous and painstaking (think how long it took to show – to most people, at least – that Loch Ness probably does not harbour a large monster).
And it’s not just a case of making a head-count of modern extinctions. This needs to be compared with a long-term “baseline” rate of extinctions in our planet’s long geological history. This can only be extracted via the equally painstaking and difficult work of excavating and identifying millions of fossils from the almost endless rock strata. Not surprisingly, different studies made so far on different fossils have yielded different baseline rates.
Caballos and colleagues have thought through these difficulties, and come up with probably the most robust estimate yet of how severe the modern crisis is.
They have been deliberately conservative – they’re well aware of the dangers of crying wolf on a topic of such importance, and where passions run so high. For a start, they limit themselves to the best-studied group of organisms, the vertebrates. Then, they take a high estimate of background extinctions to compare with, to make the modern figures as undramatic as possible. And then, they either consider only those animals known to be extinct (the “highly conservative” scenario), or they add in those extinctions in the wild that are likely to have happened, but are not yet verified.
Even with this caution, the figures are still shocking. [Continue reading…]