Scientists Warn Extinction Now Outpaces Evolution

The indri of Madagascar — the largest living lemur — is critically endangered and highly evolutionarily distinct. If the indri goes extinct we will lose 19 million years of unique evolutionary history

Humans have helped propel the extinction of more than 300 mammal species - equaling a staggering loss of 2.5 billion years' worth of unique evolutionary history, according to a grim new study published Monday.

The team determined that species which could benefit from extra conservation efforts now-before it's too late to save them-include the black rhino, the red panda, and the indri.

While Earth has experienced five mass extinctions in its history, the current phenomenon is unique in that it is caused by humans, not natural disasters.

And, it would take 3 to 5 million years to reach the levels they're at now, even if humans cease destructive practices. They believe that people are responsible for eliminating the evolutionary diversity that is on the planet.

The researchers utilized their considerable database of mammals, which involves not only the present say species but also hundreds of species that existed in the past and became extinct as Homo sapiens proliferated across the globe.

Using powerful computers, advanced evolutionary simulations and comprehensive data about evolutionary relationships and body sizes of existing and extinct mammals, the researchers were able to quantify how much evolutionary time would be lost from past and potential future extinctions as well as how long recovery would take.

The team considered a few scenarios: mammals start to recover immediately - a situation that would require a dramatic change to conservation norms-or after 20, 50 or 100 years of current conservation efforts.

Danish and Swedish researchers said that many mammal species would be extinct during the next five decades but nature need 3 to 5 million years to recover.

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Litopterns, like this one discovered by Charles Darwin, were a strange-looking group of prehistoric South American mammals that were not closely related to any species alive today. Then they calculated diversity loss since the Last Interglacial about 130,000 years ago, a preanthropogenic baseline, and determined how likely it is now threatened species will go extinct in the near future. This rate of extinction is increasing over the course of the last few years. That's not the case for some megafauna species such as giant sloths and sabre-toothed tigers, which used to be highly evolutionary distinct and went extinct 10,000 years ago, with humans playing a major role. "Since they had few close relatives, their extinctions meant that entire branches of Earth's evolutionary tree were chopped off" says palaeontologist Matt Davis from Aarhus University, who led the study.

Davis said each lost species had its own intrinsic value, but the loss of the most distinct creatures was most damaging: "Typically, if you have something that is off by itself, it does some job that no other species is doing".

The scientists responsible for the study hope that their work will spur more environmental protection for large animals. Asian elephants' chance of making it to the 22nd century is less than 33%, the study found.

As part of the crisis, mammals are dying off at least 45 times faster than experts predict. Extinction threatens more than twenty percent of living mammals thanks in large part to a booming human population, vanishing habitats and climate change.

"The few remaining giants, such as rhinos and elephants, are in danger of being wiped out very rapidly", he continued.

He noted that the planet no longer boasts giant beavers, giant deer, or giant armadillos.

"Our paper particularly suggests that we should be using phylogenetic diversity more to prioritize conservation of evolutionary distinct species that are at risk of extinction", said Davis.

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