Mass plant extinction: A rising alarm for all species

Human activity is the main cause of the disappearance of some 600 plant species, a first-of-its-kind study warns.

    Mass plant extinction: A rising alarm for all species
    Millions of other species on Earth depend on plants for their survival [File:Crack Palinggi/Reuters]

    Fast Facts

    • More than 570 species wiped out since 1750
    • Number of extinct plants far outnumbers animals and birds
    • Habitats have been destroyed by agriculture

    Nearly 600 plant species have disappeared from the wild over the past 250 years, a new research project found.

    The study - published by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew on Monday - said 571 plant species have vanished, or twice the number of mammals, birds, and amphibians combined that have been wiped out.

    "Most people can name a mammal or bird that has become extinct in recent centuries, but few can name an extinct plant," said Aelys M Humphreys, assistant professor at the Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Sciences at Stockholm University.

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    "This study is the first time we have an overview of what plants have already become extinct, where they have disappeared from, and how quickly this is happening."

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

    Deforestation, farming

    On average, 2.3 species have become extinct each year for the past 2.5 centuries - 500 times faster than what it would be under natural conditions.

    The main cause of the mass plant extinction is the destruction of habitats by human activity, such as deforestation to convert land into farms, the study said.

    Hawaii stands out as having the most recorded extinctions, followed by the Cape provinces of South Africa and Mauritius, with Australia, Brazil, India and Madagascar also being among the top regions. 

    Scientists called the results alarming as millions of other species depend on plants for their survival. 

    "Plants make the infrastructure of ecosystems as well as give everybody food and air. So without plants, everything else will go too, and we don't even understand exactly how all life is dependent on one another," Maria Vorontsova, a plant taxonomist, told Al Jazeera. 

     Tuesday's report wasn't the only plant study raising alarms.

    In May, a UN report estimated about one million animal and plant species were also threatened with extinction, many within decades.

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    It identified industrial farming and fishing as major drivers of the crisis, with the current rate of species extinction tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10 million years.

    "We have reconfigured dramatically the life of the planet," said Eduardo Brondizio, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University, who co-chaired the report.

    "The key message: business as usual has to end."

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies