ecology: is the world on the brink of an extinction crisis?

British researchers have reported dramatic declines in plant and animal species in the United Kingdom and suggest it’s evidence that the earth may be experiencing “the sixth major extinction event in its history.” (Major extinction event number five is whatever wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago.) In the March 19 Science, Jeremy Thomas of the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and colleagues report analyzing six surveys compiled by scientists and some 20,000 volunteers that stretched back 40 years and covered almost all of the UK’s plant, bird, and butterfly populations. The researchers found that 28 percent of native plant species decreased in Britain over the past 40 years and that 54 percent of bird species decreased over 20 years. Surprisingly, since insects were thought to be among the more resilient species, butterflies fared particularly poorly: over 20 years, 71 percent of all butterfly species declined. If insects elsewhere are similarly sensitive, then “the world is indeed experiencing the extinction crisis many people have been suggesting and talking about for years,” Thomas stated.

This news brief appeared in the Discoveries column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 3/23/2004.
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