Earth’s sixth major extinction happening much faster than it should: UBC professors

In the last 115 years there should have been nine vertebrate extinctions. Instead there have been 468, according to a recent study.

Species have been disappearing from Earth 10 to 100 times faster than historical records suggest they should be, found the study out of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“It’s [certain that] we're entering the Earth's sixth major extinction, but it’s even worse than these numbers suggest,” said Sarah Otto, a UBC biologist studying how evolutionary processes create biological diversity.

The study’s authors purposefully used conservative figures. Otto and several other UBC experts agree; the findings represent a minimum estimate, or a best-case scenario.

In this spirit, the B.C. Museum species-at-risk exhibit kicked off on June 29 at UBC. The small traveling exhibit will teach youth about accelerating extinction. They are touring the exhibit around to raise awareness in B.C. communities, as well as hosting educational summer camps for youth in the Interior.

According to Otto, humans are to blame for the extinction debt, which is caused by past events that will lead to extinction in the future. Many species have declined severely, but the surviving few may still take a hundred of years to disappear. The declines in population will still damage the ecosystem. One severe and looming cause of extinction debt is global warming.

The full effects of climate change haven’t kicked in, but when they do, “buckle up,” said Darren Irwin, a professor of evolutionary ecology in UBC’s Zoology department. He says climate change will accelerate species declines and extinctions. The ecosystem changes will mean big changes for human society.

Irwin doesn’t think humans will go extinct, but there will be challenges. Humans depend on the environment for clean water, oxygen, and food, and “we don’t know how many species we can lose without starting to [hurt] those functions in a huge way,” he said.

Eric Taylor, professor of zoology at UBC and former director of the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, said the real focus should be on the loss of richness that biodiversity provides.

“The point is not that we rank up there with historical extinctions, the point is we face losses of biodiversity all around us that is important to Canadians for esthetic, cultural, commercial, environmental health and recreational reasons,” said Taylor. “We are also losing what, in part, makes Canada Canada.”

Otto believes reversing the damage is possible, but it will take government action. She and many others have been calling on Canada’s government to act for years. As an example she points to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), a panel of experts that makes recommendations to the government to list animals as endangered. Otto said all 67 of their species-at-risk assessments since 2011 have been ignored.

But even when species are listed at at-risk, “it’s a too-little too-late kind of protection anyway,” said Otto, describing the system as lacking teeth in comparison to the United States’ system.

The demand for it will have to come from Canadians, she said, and from initiatives like the BC Museum educational exhibit. “Politicians follow the public and if the public isn’t asking for more protection of our species at risk then the politicians are happy not to do it."