Plants now going extinct 500 times faster than the ‘natural’ rate

Wiped out: Tecophilaea cyanocrocus. Picture: Getty
Wiped out: Tecophilaea cyanocrocus. Picture: Getty
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Plant extinctions across the world in the past 250 years are nearly four times higher than was previously thought, new international research has found.

Analysis of global records has revealed that nearly 600 plant species have vanished from the wild since the 18th century – more than double the number of birds, mammals and amphibians that have become extinct over the same time period.

The study found plants have been disappearing in recent centuries 500 times faster than the ‘natural’ extinction rate – the normal rate of losses without human influence.

The researchers, from the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Sweden’s Stockholm University, say the highest extinction rates are seen on islands, in the tropics and in places with a Mediterranean climate.

They say the findings should serve as a stark warning since all life on earth depends on plants to survive.

They are calling for greater efforts to prioritise conservation, particularly in some of the worst-hit areas.

“Plants underpin all life on earth,” said researcher Dr Eimear Nic Lughadha, conservation scientist at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

“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.

“This new understanding of plant extinction will help us predict – and try to prevent – future extinctions of plants, as well as other organisms.

“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 programmes targeting other organisms as well.”

Co-researcher Dr Aelys M Humphreys, assistant professor at Stockholm University’s Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Sciences, said: “Most people can name a mammal or bird that has become extinct in recent centuries, but few can name an extinct plant.

“This study is the first time we have an overview of what plants have already become extinct, where they have disappeared from and how quickly this is happening.

“We hear a lot about the number of species facing extinction, but these figures are for plants that we’ve already lost, so provide an unprecedented window into plant extinction in modern times.”

The study found that 571 plant species have disappeared in the past two-and-a-half centuries.

A total number of 217 birds, mammals and amphibians have been recorded as extinct over the same period.

However, despite the discovery that plants are disappearing 500 times faster than the natural rate, animals are vanishing even more rapidly – at least 1,000 times faster than the background rate.

However, the scientists believe the latest figures underestimate the true extent of ongoing plant extinctions.