Earth's sixth mass extinction has begun, researchers said in a series of new studies published this week, in which they pointed to the disappearance of different plant and animals species as evidence.
According to The Associated Press, a major percentage of the Earth's population
has been nearly decimated five other times in history, presumably by meteor collisions. We are now in the midst of a sixth extinction as species of plants and animals are dying out 1,000 faster than they did before humans were around.
One study, published in the journal Science, said that since 1500, more than 320 terrestrial vertebrates have become extinct. Stanford University biology professor Rodolfo Dirzo said it appears the extinction is tied to the era of human activity, or "Anthropocene defaunation."
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"Where human density is high, you get high rates of defaunation, high incidence of rodents, and thus high levels of pathogens, which increases the risks of disease transmission," Dirzo, senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, said in a statement
. "Who would have thought that just defaunation would have all these dramatic consequences? But it can be a vicious circle."
In another study published in May, Duke University biologist Stuart Pimm confirmed the same results, saying that the pre-human death rate of extinctions compared to the current rate has increased dramatically.
"We are on the verge of the sixth extinction," Pimm said, according to the AP. "Whether we avoid it or not will depend on our actions."
Pimm and Clinton Jenkins, with the Institute of Ecological Research in Brazil, blame a combination of factors for the extinction, including invasive species crowding out native species, climate change, overfishing, habitat loss, and instances of humans altering the planet to the detriment of the disappearing species.
Dirzo said, though, that numerous changes can be made to slow such a mass extinction, including reducing rates of habitat change for animals and other species, as well as raising awareness of current mass extinction trends.
"We tend to think about extinction as loss of a species from the face of Earth, and that's very important, but there's a loss of critical ecosystem functioning in which animals play a central role that we need to pay attention to as well," Dirzo said in the Stanford statement.
"Ironically, we have long considered that defaunation is a cryptic phenomenon, but I think we will end up with a situation that is non-cryptic because of the increasingly obvious consequences to the planet and to human wellbeing," he continued.
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