Click to return to the Evolution Home Page
darwin change extinction survival sex humans religion
mass extinction    
roundtable:a modern mass extinction Watch Show 3:
"Extinction!" on PBS
Check local listings
bald eagle
Of all species that have existed on Earth, 99.9 percent are now extinct. Many of them perished in five cataclysmic events.

According to a recent poll, seven out of ten biologists think we are currently in the throes of a sixth mass extinction. Some say it could wipe out as many as 90 percent of all species living today. Yet other scientists dispute such dire projections.

As our panelists debate the issue, they also consider how one species -- Homo sapiens -- may be triggering a modern mass extinction.

are we in the midst of a mass extinction
  Question submittal is now closed. Please go to the forums to read our panelists' answers to the user questions.
Daniel Simberloff Daniel Simberloff is professor of environmental studies and director of the Institute for Biological Invasions at the University of Tennessee. He has conducted extensive research on the rates and causes of species extinction, on the nature of ecological communities, and on the impacts and management of introduced species (those who migrate to a new area).

We are surely in the midst of a mass extinction. Even though it's hard to compare past extinction rates with that of the present, given missing data from the past, we do know how to identify extinction periods: the elevation of extinction rates in those periods are at least a hundred-fold over the slow "background" rate of "normal" extinction.

Of about 6 to 10 million currently existing species, we have still only identified 1 million; we know more about vertebrate species than we do about plants and insects. But for groups that we know well, knowledge of very recent species extinctions -- and for current species, their ranges and the threats to them -- allows us to be certain that extinction rates are comparable to those of the great past extinctions. For example, for birds, of about 10,000 species worldwide, at least 128 have disappeared in the last 500 years, about 1,200 are currently seriously threatened with extinction (all but three from human activities); there is a real prospect of the loss of 500 bird species within this century.
For less well-known groups, we must use inference. We know there is a rough relationship between the area of a patch of habitat and the number of species it will contain. Since habitat destruction is the leading cause of endangerment and extinction, and we have data on the rate of habitat destruction, we can estimate rates of extinction in some cases. Introduced species -- those who migrate to a new area -- are the second leading cause of endangerment and extinction. Information on the rate of species introduction and the nature of the impacts of introduced species on native species and ecosystems allows inferences about extinction rates. The evidence all points to a global tragedy with a profound loss of biodiversity.
(Boldface added.)
< back to intro page
  related web activities  
Deep Time
Explore 4 billion years of life on Earth.
What Killed the Dinosaurs?
Find clues to one of life's great mysteries.
The Evolving Enemy
Experts discuss how we can stop deadly, drug-resistant microbes.
  related topics  
  Why Evolution Matters  
  Deep Time/History of Life  
  Evidence for Evolution  
Source Credits      
Videos Web Activities Site Guide About the Project FAQ Glossary Site Map Feedback Help Shop