Species ‘are dying faster than ever and it’ll take millions of years to recover’

Lake Volvi in Greece temporarily dries up as a consequence of excessive irrigation for agriculture paired with climate change. (Credit: C. Albrecht, JLU)

Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid crashed to Earth and kicked off a mass extinction that wiped out 76% of all species on the planet. Including, of course, the dinosaurs.

But scientists think humans are driving another extinction event — and this one could be killing species even faster.

Habitat destruction, climate change, overexploitation, pollution and invasive species are all pushing numerous species towards extinction.

Researchers led by the University of Giessen, Germany, wanted to find out how quickly Earth’s species were disappearing, and how long it might take them to recover.

They looked to freshwater species, which are among the most threatened, to find out. The team made a database of thousands of fossilised and living snail species from Europe covering the last 200 million years to try and figure out how fast species come and go.

They discovered that freshwater species declined more quickly than expected after the asteroid 66 million years ago.

But this paled in comparison to their estimates of future extinction rates.

The team think the current extinction event will kill off species at an average rate three times the magnitude of the last event. By 2120, a third of living freshwater species may have vanised.

This is microcolpia parreyssii, a freshwater snail from a small thermal spring in Romania. The species is flagged as ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN Red List, but it has not been found living in the past few years and is probably extinct in the wild. (Credit: Thomas A Neubauer)

The team believe species are being lost faster than ever before. And this will have serious implications for humans.

Dr Thomas A Neubauer, who led the research published in Communications Earth & Environment on Friday said: ‘Losing species entails changes in species communities and, in the long run, this affects entire ecosystems.

‘We rely on functioning freshwater environments to sustain human health, nutrition and fresh water supply.’

The study also revealed that it can take many millions of years for ecosystems to recover, even after a relatively quick event like the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.

The extinction rate stayed high for about five million years after that impact. And the balance between species appearing and disappearing didn’t recover for about 12 million years.

Neubauer said: ‘Even if our impact on the world’s biota stops today, the extinction rate will likely stay high for an extended period of time.

‘Considering that the current biodiversity crisis advances much faster than the mass extinction event 66 million years ago, the recovery period may be even longer.

‘Despite our short existence on Earth, we have assured that the effects of our actions will outlast us by millions of years.’

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