Plants driven to extinction at twice rate of mammals, birds and amphibians

Rodiano Bonacci
Giugno 12, 2019

Nearly 600 plant species have been wiped from the planet in the past 250 years, more than twice the number of bird, mammal and amphibian species that have met the same fate, according to a new study.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Stockholm University researchers say it's the first time scientists have compiled a global overview of which plants have already become extinct.

One plant - the banded trinity - has not been seen since turning up in a field in Chicago in 1916.

The Chile sandalwood, Santalum fernandezianum, once grew in abundance on the Juan Fernandez Islands, between Chile and Easter Island, but was exploited for its aromatic properties.

Another is the St Helena olive, first discovered in 1805 on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic.

A bright spot: Researchers also found that 430 species once considered extinct were subsequently rediscovered.

Rafael Govaerts, a Kew botanist, spent 30 years reviewing publications on plant extinctions and found the number was four times more than now registered, with species disappearing at 500 times the natural rate.

The number is based on actual extinctions rather than estimates, and is twice that of all bird, mammal and amphibian extinctions combined.

Even worse? "It is way more than we knew and way more than should have gone extinct", says researcher Maria Vorontsova.

Experts found that 500 species are no longer found on Earth.

According to the research, the extinction of seed plants is occurring at a faster rate than the normal turnover of the species.

The biggest losses are on islands and in the tropics, which are home to highly valued timber trees and tend to be particularly rich in plant diversity.

Plant extinctions can lead to a whole cascade of extinctions in other organisms that rely on them, for instance insects that use plants for food and for laying their eggs.

"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", she explained.

Commenting on the research, Dr Rob Salguero-Gómez, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, said: 'Plants underpin and provide key resources to entire ecosystems worldwide.

When scientists talk about recent extinctions, birds and mammals get most of the attention. Understanding how much, where, and how plant species are being lost is of paramount importance, not only for ecologists but also for human societies.

"Plants make the infrastructure of ecosystems as well as give everybody food and air".

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