Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis)

Will it be good-bye, Aye-aye? (Photo: Sylvain Cordier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Human Footprint Threatening Nearly 50 Billion Years of Cumulative Evolutionary History: Study

"Our findings indicate that the magnitude of our impact as a species on the natural world is incomprehensibly large, and appears to be overwhelmingly impacting the most irreplaceable areas and species on the planet."

Andrea Germanos

Human activities threaten to saw off branches of the "tree of life"—putting irreplaceable species at risk of extinction.

So finds a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications which highlights the need for urgent conservation actions.

Barring such action, the researchers wrote, "close to 50 billion years" of cumulative evolutionary history worldwide is at risk.

Scientists from Imperial College London and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) began their research by first analyzing the world's reptiles and then terrestrial vertebrates like amphibians, birds, and mammals, looking at how areas with a high human footprint—including factors like deforestation and population density—coincide with areas containing species with unique evolutionary history, or branches on the tree of life.

The scientists found a troubling overlap, with areas in the Caribbean, the Western Ghats of India, and large parts of Southeast Asia singled out as experiencing both extreme human pressures and unique biodiversity.

A statement from ZSL further explains:

The greatest losses of evolutionary history will be driven by the extinction of entire groups of closely-related species that share long branches of the tree of life, such as pangolins and tapirs, and also by the loss of highly evolutionarily distinct species that sit alone at the ends of extremely long branches, such as the ancient Chinese crocodile lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus), the Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex), a gigantic bird that stalks the wetlands of Africa, and the Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis), a nocturnal lemur with large yellow eyes and long spindly fingers.

At risk with the possible extinctions is not just the intrinsic value of the threatened species in and of themselves but their roles in the greater web of life. From BBC News:

Many [of the at-risk animals] carry out vital functions in the habitats in which they live. For example, tapirs in the Amazon disperse seeds in their droppings that can help regenerate the rainforest. And pangolins, which are specialist eaters of ants and insects, play an essential role in balancing the food web.

Lead author Rikki Gumbs of ZSL's EDGE of Existence program and the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet Doctoral Training Partnership at Imperial College London put the findings in stark terms.

"Our analyses reveal the incomprehensible scale of the losses we face if we don't work harder to save global biodiversity," said Gumbs. "To put some of the numbers into perspective, reptiles alone stand to lose at least 13 billion years of unique evolutionary history, roughly the same number of years as have passed since the beginning of the entire universe."

Among species the study identified as in need of urgent conservation efforts—because of their evolutionary uniqueness and being endemic to regions under intense human pressure—include the Mary River turtle (Elusor macrurus), the Purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis), and the Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus).

"Our findings highlight the importance of acting urgently to conserve these extraordinary species and the remaining habitat that they occupy—in the face of intense human pressures," said co-author James Rosindell of Imperial College London.

In blog post for ZSL's EDGE of Existence program, Gumbs highlighted the scope of the problem.

"We are still learning the true extent to which human activities are encroaching on our natural habitats and threatening our most unique and important biodiversity. Our findings indicate that the magnitude of our impact as a species on the natural world is incomprehensibly large, and appears to be overwhelmingly impacting the most irreplaceable areas and species on the planet," he wrote.

Despite the grim picture, it's still possible to avert more serious losses, Gumbs added, noting that "evidence suggests that even small increases in the global protected area network can lead to huge gains in conservation impact."

"If we can work together to reduce our impacts on the natural world and conserve our natural habitats and species," he wrote, "we have the opportunity to avert the loss of an incredible amount of irreplaceable biodiversity."

Correction/Update: This article has been updated to better reflect that the years of evolutionary history in this context are cumulative.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'Political Malpractice': House Democrats' Bill Wouldn't Add Dental to Medicare Until 2028

"I don't want to see it drawn out to as far as the House has proposed," Sen. Bernie Sanders said during a recent press call.

Jake Johnson ·


'How Many More Deaths Must It Take?' Barbados Leader Rips Rich Nations in Fierce UN Speech

"How many more variants of Covid-19 must arrive, how many more, before a worldwide plan for vaccinations will be implemented?"

Jake Johnson ·


To Avert Debt Ceiling Calamity, Democrats Urged to Finally Kill the Filibuster

"The solution is to blow up the filibuster at least for debt limit votes, just as Mitch blew it up to pack the Supreme Court for his big donors."

Jake Johnson ·


Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo