1 out of 5 of the world’s 10,000 reptile species could go extinct due to the spread of deforestation and farming in tropical regions, says a new report from the Zoological Society of London and the species survival commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Specifically, 12 percent of the reptiles threatened are critically endangered, 41 percent are endangered and 47 percent are vulnerable.
Some 200 experts examined 1,500 randomly selected reptiles from around the world. As the study’s lead author Monica Böhm emphasizes, there’s been a tendency to think that reptiles are “hardy creatures” who are “doing fine.” But reptiles are actually “highly specialized in their habitat use, have small ranges, and are sensitive to even slight changes in temperatures.”
That is, habitat loss leaves reptiles in a particularly precarious position, says John Roach in NBC; as he notes, a ”species that lives in tropical forest habitat, for example, would immediately feel changes in its microclimate if the habitat was cleared and converted to agriculture.” Böhm also points out that reptiles are “not particularly mobile” and therefore unable to migrate to environments more suited to them, as other species can.
In particular, reptiles living in freshwater environments, tropical regions and oceanic Islands are especially threatened. Half of freshwater turtle species are already nearing extinction, due to harvesting for the international pet trade and for meat; 25 of the most endangered are listed in an IUCN publication (pdf).
Three species of reptiles could already be extinct, as they have been so rarely sighted. A jungle runner lizard, Ameiva vittata, has only been seen in the Cochabamba region of the Bolivian jungle, which is threatened by logging and agriculture and two more recent attempts to do so have been fruitless. Extensive deforestation in Haiti has left six of nine species of anolis lizard with an elevated risk of extinction.
Böhm underscored that many reptile species are “highly specialized,” having evolved to live in particular habitats that are now being altered by climate change. Reptiles play crucial roles as predators and prey, so the loss of so many species is sure to have repercussions in ecosystems.
The prospect of losing almost 20 percent of the world’s reptiles is a gloomy one. Böhm and the study’s other authors urge that its findings be used as evidence to protect and preserve habitats as climate change becomes a growing threat. As she says, “the healthier habitats are, the more resistant they probably are to these threats in the future” — just as a healthy mind exists in a healthy body, so a healthy planet (with carbon-based emissions and ecosystem loss kept in check) means a healthy population of wildlife.
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Photo of Anolis lizard from Thinkstock