Plant extinctions are four times higher than previously thought, according to scientists who have just published the first-ever global study on the issue.
A shocking 571 species have disappeared since 1750, with extinction rates 500 times greater than before the industrial revolution, according to the study, which is published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
This new figure is four times the number of extinct plants that are recorded in the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a go-to guide for threatened plant and animal species.
The main reason behind the extinction is the destruction of natural habitats by human activities, such as farming and logging.
Dr. Maria Vorontsova, from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in London, said the true number of plants that have been wiped out, is likely to be much greater than those listed in the report.
“It is frightening not just because of the 571 number, but because I think it’s a gross underestimate. How are you going to check the entirety of the Amazon for your lost plant?” Vorontsova told the Guardian.
Alan Gray, from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology based in Oxfordshire, agreed that in probability scientists have no idea how many plants have been lost forever.
“Scientists have not studied the vast majority of the world’s plants in any detail, so the authors are right to think the numbers they have produced are large underestimates,” he told the Guardian.
There are also likely to be several species that have gone extinct before they were ever discovered. While other plants, although they are not yet extinct have no means of reproducing because the big animals needed to spread their seeds are no longer there or only one sex of the plant remains.
The Sixth Mass Extinction
According to scientists, the world is in the middle of the sixth mass extinction. A report published last month found that one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction, as human activity increasingly threatens the planet’s natural life support systems.
This latest news on plant extinction is bad news for animals, as plants form the backbone of the world’s ecosystems.
“Plants underpin all life on earth. They provide the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat, so plant extinction is bad news for all species,” Dr. Eimear Lughadha, who was part of the team that compiled the research, told the Guardian.
The new database on plant extinctions comes from years of fieldwork reports sourced from various scientific journals and scientists hope it will act as a guide in helping to conserve future species, as it highlights what kind of plants are at danger of extinction.
For example, species in the Mediterranean are more at risk because the region is more susceptible to global warming and will see summer rainfall decrease by up to 30% in some areas.
In this study, scientists found that Hawaii had the most recorded extinctions, followed by the Cape provinces of South Africa and Madagascar. However, the authors point out that there may have been many extinctions in areas which were not studied or less thoroughly looked at.
Among the plants lost forever, were two types of tree, the Chilean sandalwood, chopped into oblivion for its aromatic wood and the Saint Helena Olive, which was only found on the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean.