At least 571 plant species, from the Chile sandalwood to the St. Helena olive, have gone extinct in the wild over the past 250 years, according to a new study that has biodiversity experts worried about what the findings suggest for the future of life on Earth.
"It is frightening not just because of the 571 number but because I think that is a gross underestimate."
—Maria Vorontsova, study co-author
"Plants underpin all life on Earth, 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," study co-authur Eimear Nic Lughadha of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew said in a statement.
For the first-of-its-kind study, published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, researchers at Key Stockholm University compiled all known plant extinction records. That effort, Nature reported, stems from a database that Kew's Rafaël Govaerts started in 1988 "to track the status of every known plant species."
The researchers' new findings, according to co-author Aelys M. Humphreys of Stockholm University, "provide an unprecedented window into plant extinction in modern times."
"Most people can name a mammal or bird that has become extinct in recent centuries, but few can name an extinct plant," Humphreys said. "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."
The Guardian noted how the figure compares with other analyses of species loss:
The number of plants that have disappeared from the wild is more than twice the number of extinct birds, mammals, and amphibians combined. The new figure is also four times the number of extinct plants recorded in the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list.
"It is way more than we knew and way more than should have gone extinct," said Dr. Maria Vorontsova, also at Kew. "It is frightening not just because of the 571 number but because I think that is a gross underestimate."
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Citing the study, Nature reported that "the world's seed-bearing plants have been disappearing at a rate of nearly three species a year since 1900—which is up to 500 times higher than would be expected as a result of natural forces alone."
Earth’s seed plants are disappearing 500 times faster than they would without human influence — and that's not counting species that are extinct in the wild or whose populations are too small to survive. https://t.co/Kp0As9G6Jt
— Nature News & Comment (@NatureNews) June 11, 2019
While the study sparked alarm, researchers expressed hope that their work will be used to improve conservation efforts—particularly "on islands and in the tropics, where plant loss is common, and in areas where less is known about plant extinction such as Africa and South America."
To prevent the loss of more plant species, "we need to record all the plants across the world," Vorontsova said. "To do this we need to support herbaria and the production of plant identification guides, we need to teach our children to see and recognize their local plants, and most importantly we need botanists for years to come."
Another positive takeaway from the study was rediscovery: the researchers found that 430 species previously believed extinct are actually still around. However, they noted, 90 percent of those species face a high risk of future extinction.
The Chilean crocus, for example, had seemed to disappear by 1950s—but a small population was discovered south of Santiago, Chile in 2001. That population is currently being protected from livestock, and the species is being cultivated in the U.K., but it is still listed as "critically endangered" on the red list.
The new survey follows an "ominous" analysis published last month by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services which found, as Common Dreams reported at the time, "that human exploitation of the natural world has pushed a million plant and animal species to the brink of extinction—with potentially devastating implications for the future of civilization."