Study reveals a shocking number of plants have gone extinct

Scientists are sounding the alarm in the wake of a new study that reveals a “frightening” number of plants have gone extinct around the world.

As human activity such as habitat destruction and pollution continues to increase and the threat of uncontrolled climate change continues to loom, our planet is not only losing animal species, but plant species as well, most of which have been lost since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

A team of scientists have been globetrotting in order to find out if they can still find known species of plants where they are supposed to be, only to be disappointed to learn that a plant they believed still existed has been wiped out.

According to The Guardian:

They found 571 species had definitely been wiped out since 1750 but with knowledge of many plant species still very limited the true number is likely to be much higher. The researchers said the plant extinction rate was 500 times greater now than before the industrial revolution, and this was also likely to be an underestimate.

The plant analysis found Hawaii had the most recorded extinctions (79), followed by the Cape provinces of South Africa (37), with Australia, Brazil, India and Madagascar also among the top regions. However, there may well have been as many extinctions in places that have been less well studied.

“Plants underpin all life on Earth,” Royal Botanic Gardens’ Dr. Eimear Nic Lughadha said. “They provide the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat, as well as making up the backbone of the world’s ecosystems – so plant extinction is bad news for all species. Millions of other species depend on plants for their survival, humans included, so knowing which plants we are losing and from where will feed back into conservation programs.”

Indeed, many of these plants likely had medicinal value and served important roles in the food chain. Now that they are gone, whole environments will see ripple effects and so will humanity.

“The finding that extinction rates are highest in biodiversity hotspots that are at risk due to land-use change is alarming,” Southampton University ecologist Bjorn Robroek said.

Such land uses include clearing for plantations and ranches to produce beef and other agricultural products at the expense of forests and other plants. An area the size of two United Kingdoms has been cleared in just the last ten years despite promises by corporations to end deforestation by 2020. And demand for agricultural products is only increasing. There are also many plant species we still don’t know are extinct yet.

“Scientists have not studied the vast majority of the world’s plants in any detail, so the authors are right to think the numbers they have produced are large underestimates,” Centre for Ecology and Hydrology’s Alan Gray pointed out. “To address this extinction crisis, humanity will need to devise solutions that target funding towards conservation research and action. It’s time to ask not what biodiversity can do for us but what we can do for biodiversity.”

Dr. Maria Vorontsova, who also worked on the study with Lughadha, looked for a particular plant in Madagascar, only to be saddened that the plant not only has disappeared, but so has an entire coastal forest due to an increasingly pervasive agricultural industry.

“We scoured the hills and mountains but it was not there,” she said. “In the places where it would be growing, there are cattle grazing, regular fires and people growing rice. We found a coastal forest completely destroyed. I was shocked.”

“It is way more than we knew and way more than should have gone extinct,” Vorontsova says of the study results. “It is frightening not just because of the 571 number but because I think that is a gross underestimate. We suffer from plant blindness. Animals are cute, important and diverse but I am absolutely shocked how a similar level of awareness and interest is missing for plants. We take them for granted and I don’t think we should.”

Vorontsova also warned that there are likely many “living dead” plants in the world that are so few in numbers they lack the capacity to reproduce or the large animals that spread their seeds have also gone functionally extinct or completely extinct.

And she is not kidding. A recent study warns that humans are causing nature to shrink because large animals are dying out, which means any plants that rely on large animals for seed propagation are doomed.

At this point, it is too little, too late for many plants. And as a result, it may be too late to save many animal species as well. Deforestation and habitat destruction is not going to stop unless drastic actions are taken to make it stop. In the meantime, more species of plants and animals are going to disappear, and we are worse off for it.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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