July 08, 2009
Species Extinctions Measured Since Year 1500

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species report finds several hundred species have gone extinct since year 1500.

The report analyses 44,838 species on the IUCN Red List and presents results by groups of species, geographical regions, and different habitats, such as marine, freshwater and terrestrial.

It shows 869 species are Extinct or Extinct the Wild and this figure rises to 1,159 if the 290 Critically Endangered species tagged as Possibly Extinct are included. Overall, a minimum of 16,928 species are threatened with extinction. Considering that only 2.7 percent of the 1.8 million described species have been analyzed, this number is a gross underestimate, but it does provide a useful snapshot of what is happening to all forms of life on Earth.


In the oceans, the picture is similarly bleak. The report shows that a broad range of marine species are experiencing potentially irreversible loss due to over-fishing, climate change, invasive species, coastal development and pollution. At least 17 percent of the 1,045 shark and ray species, 12.4 percent of groupers and six of the seven marine turtle species are threatened with extinction. Most noticeably, 27 percent of the 845 species of reef building corals are threatened, 20 percent are Near Threatened and there is not enough data for 17 percent to be assessed. Marine birds are much more threatened that terrestrial ones with 27.5 percent in danger of extinction, compared with 11.8 percent of terrestrial birds.

Many more species went extinct during this period of time without first becoming recognized and classified by humans.

Here is the full report.

Every sector, whether it be trade, fi nancial, or health, has its metrics for monitoring trends. For biodiversity The IUCN Red List is that metric. Around 45,000 species have been assessed to-date. This is a tiny fraction (2.7%) of the world’s described species (with current estimates of the total number ranging from 5 to 30 million). We now know that nearly one quarter of the world’s mammals, nearly one third of amphibians and more than 1 in 8 of all bird species are at risk of extinction. This allows us to come to the stark conclusion that wildlife (the word used in more technical circles is biodiversity) is in trouble, and the extent of the current risk of extinction varies between different species groups. For this reason IUCN is increasing the number of conservation assessments of species in the marine and freshwater realms, and for plants and invertebrate groups. Some early fi ndings of this work are presented here.

See page 41 for a table of threatened species by type.Vertebrates are most threatened. The lichens, assorted algae, and mushrooms so far are not threatened at all.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 July 08 12:52 AM  Trends Extinction

David Govett said at July 8, 2009 8:10 AM:

True, a few species have gone extinct.
Keep in mind, however, that 99% of all species that have existed have gone extint; we wouldn't be here if they had not.
Also, in a decade or so, once the biohackers get busy with their Sony Lifemakers, millions of new species will be loosed upon the world from attics and cellars everywhere, for better (but mostly) for worse. Runaway evolution is just around the corner. Yikes! as they used to say.

Randall Parker said at July 8, 2009 7:08 PM:

David Govett,

Yes, I agree we are going to see lots of genetically engineered species. They potentially could cause environmental disaster.

The worst scenario I could see would be a genetically engineered species let loose in the ocean that caused either a big acceleration or deceleration in photosynthesis. Atmospheric CO2 could either crash or soar.

AST said at July 8, 2009 9:55 PM:

A few hundred in 500 years doesn't sound nearly as bad as I expected from listening to the environites. They all talk like we're in the midst of a mass extinction beyond comparison. That's probably why I've dropped "mentalists" from their name and substituted "ites."

Randall Parker said at July 9, 2009 6:55 AM:


A few points:

1) Most species have not been cataloged. They aren't being watched. More were lost without ever being detected as existing in the first place.

2) Humans are going to wipe out a lot more. The number of threatened and endangered species is pretty large and growing.

3) Since humans are harnessing an increasing fraction of all the biomass for our own use the portion available for wild species is in decline. Between population growth, industrialization, and the move toward biomass energy I expect that trend to continue.

Tom Bri said at July 10, 2009 5:43 AM:

I would like to know a few more facts. Such as, the number of species with very small numbers naturally. These species can very easily go extinct even without human action. How many of the currently extinct or threatened species are from among this group? The majority I suspect.

Take the dodo for example. An island population is very easily wiped out by natural causes. How much of a future did these big birds have, anyway?

I do worry quite a bit about ocean species. Our current 'commons' approach to the sea is a disaster. Without some form of ownership, private property rights to sea life, our fisheries are doomed.

Kralizec said at July 11, 2009 1:22 PM:

I continue to think environmental activists in the United States are barking up the wrong tree. If reports can be believed, the United States has a populace numbering 305,000,000, while all populaces worldwide total to some 6,733,000,000. Moreover, the Americans and others inhabiting the United States would not number even 305 million, did the Americans not allow their borders to leak like sieves. Even now, the Americans and their hangers-on, together, have total fertility just at the replacement rate. Meanwhile, the Americans seem to be among those who care most about environmental conservation, and although their reporters are so disparaging of them, they seem to have made great improvements in the quality of their air and water and in the conservation of their forests and, lately, even their swamps.

The United States has a population density of 80 persons per square mile, while the worldwide figure is 117.1 persons per square mile. Thank heavens the environmentalists have not managed to make the Americans altogether enthusiastic about decreasing mankind's effects on the environment, for if they took it into their heads to put the whole world on par with the density of their own populace, they might arm themselves, sweep the world, and cut down 2,100,000,000, mostly in Bangladesh (population density, 2,750/sq. mi.), South Korea (1,290), India (890), Japan (870), the Philippines (760), Vietnam, the United Kingdom, Germany, Pakistan, Italy, Nigeria, and China (360/sq. mi.).

Randall Parker said at July 11, 2009 1:52 PM:


A friend of mine from Bombay is adamant that after he gets his Green Card we shouldn't let anyone else in. He says India is far too crowded and that we shouldn't want the US to become remotely like India.

Japan: I've been to Tokyo and other Japanese cities. So glad I do not live in such a densely populated place.

Worldwide population density: Okay, sure lots of uncrowded places. Look at Alaska. Want to move there? No? You are not alone. A few hundred million American agree with you. Want to move to Antarctica? No? Too expensive and cold and constrained on what you can do there? Billions of people agree with you.

I could go on. Most of the remaining sparsely populated places make for very unappealing living conditions.

Quality of our swamps: They were a lot more appealing places for a large variety of species before we drained most of them. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (which is an excellent book) has vivid descriptions of how much we've changed the world. Our impact on it keeps growing. The industrialization of China and India will wipe out huge ecosystems. The human intervention so far is bush league compared to what's in store.

Kralizec said at July 12, 2009 11:16 AM:

We seem to agree on some of my main points: The destruction of the natural environment is, probably, most often greatest in those places with the greatest density of population. The United States has much lower average density than most other populous countries of the world. Bangladesh, South Korea, India, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, the United Kingdom, Germany, Pakistan, Italy, Nigeria, and China have many times the density of the United States. It's reasonable to think the greatest destruction is occurring, and will occur, in those parts of the world.

When I gave the Americans qualified praise for their improvement of their air, water, forests and, "lately, even their swamps," you made a sharp critique of that last item in my list. Your point that so many of the swamps have already been drained is probably accurate. Perhaps we agree that the Americans have made great improvements in those other respects.

I think the Americans would continue to be well-disposed toward conservationist messages, if conservationists or environmentalists frequently made kind acknowledgments of the improvements the Americans have made already. They could probably be enlisted in efforts to make improvements elsewhere, if ackowledgments were frequently made that the worst prospects for ongoing environmental degradation are indeed elsewhere, where those teeming billions live whom the Americans are helping to feed from lands they could allow to revert to forest.

Kralizec said at July 12, 2009 7:20 PM:

When I read this article at Science Daily, I thought of our discussion here.


Randall Parker said at July 12, 2009 9:26 PM:


Yes, the Aral Sea (or what's left of it) illustrates the scale of human intervention. I fear more for what's going on in the oceans.

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