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Sea Animals' Extinction Risk Increases With Their Size

Image: Sea Animals' Extinction Risk Increases With Their Size

Blue whale skeleton at University of California, Santa Cruz. (Wikimedia Commons)

By    |   Thursday, 15 Sep 2016 08:04 AM

Sea animals' extinction risk increases with their size, most probably because bigger species are targets for human fishing, suggests a new study.

Led by Stanford University researchers and published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Science, the study compared modern extinction of sea animals with five previous mass extinctions.

Paleobiologist Jonathan Payne said the study documented extinction threat levels and ecological traits such as body size for mollusks and vertebrates – the two major groups of marine animals.

Extinction patterns over the past 500 years were compared to other patterns dating as far back 445 million years and up to 66 million years ago.

"We've found that extinction threat in the modern oceans is very strongly associated with larger body size," said Payne, who is with Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. "This is most likely due to people targeting larger species for consumption first."

As examples, Payne told The Associated Press that while the blue whale is the largest marine animal that has ever existed, it has lost 90 percent of its population over the last three generations. He said the bioluminescent bristlemouths, though, which are about three inches long, are one of the ocean's most abundant animals with an estimated population in the trillions.

The list of modern at-risk animals was taken from the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, said the Los Angeles Times.

Noel Heim, a co-author of the study, told the Times that the oceans could face unexpected consequences if it loses its largest marine animals.

"We might be skimming off the top of the food web, or changing the distribution of temperature and energy," said Heim, a postdoctoral researcher in Payne's Stanford lab. "A blue whale diving down to feed might mix a whole lot of ocean water. A larger clam will mix more sediments than a smaller one."

Duke University's conservation ecology professor Stuart Pimm, who was not connected with the study, told the Times that he agreed about the impact of losing larger marine animals.

"Big animals are important in themselves, but removing them could also dramatically change marine ecology and the way oceans work," said Pimm.

Payne told USA Today that while climate change is also playing a factor in extinctions, humans can still have quicker impact to save the larger marine animals.

"There is still time for humans to change their behavior," Payne said. "We can't do much to quickly reverse the trends of ocean warming or ocean acidification, which are both real threats that must be addressed. But we can change treaties related to how we hunt and fish."

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Sea animals' extinction risk increases with their size, most probably because bigger species are targets for human fishing, suggests a new study.
sea, animals, extinction, risk
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2016-04-15
Thursday, 15 Sep 2016 08:04 AM
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