Does This Endangered Species Database Underestimate Risk of Extinction?

If you follow the plight of endangered species, you know the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. It’s the authoritative database conservationists refer to most often for information on which species are at risk of extinction. A new study says the the IUCN list could be woefully underestimating which species are truly at risk.

Duke University researchers say forest birds with small ranges may be at much greater risk than their IUCN classification would indicate.

Their study looked at 586 threatened forest bird species from six critical locations — the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, Central America, the Western Andes of Colombia, Madagascar, Sumatra and Southeast Asia. The places were chosen for their combination of biodiversity and their overall threatened status. The thinking was that the fates of these birds are inextricably tied to the fates of all other animals in these biologically rich locations.

Areas outlined in black are those included in the Duke study, overlain on map of concentration of small-ranged birds.  Photo credit: Study, "Incorporating explicit geospatial data shows more species at risk of extinction than the current Red List"

Areas outlined in black are those included in the Duke study, overlain on map of concentration of small-ranged birds. Photo credit: Study, “Incorporating explicit geospatial data shows more species at risk of extinction than the current Red List”

Duke’s study focused on birds only, but the team believes its conclusions can be extrapolated to mammals, amphibians and other animals too.

The IUCN Red List categorizes 18 percent of these 586 bird species as threatened. Fifteen are deemed critically endangered, 29 are endangered and 64 are listed as vulnerable. That’s 108 in total. In reality, the study’s findings say 210 of these species are at risk and 189 of them should be classified as threatened. Right now, those 189 are officially considered non-threatened.

“We have birds that have smaller ranges than we think because of habitat loss, and their ranges are also not protected,” lead author Dr. Natalia Ocampo-Peńuela told Mongabay. “So we are not putting them in the right threatened category, and we are not spending resources for conservation of these species. They could go extinct before our eyes and we wouldn’t know it.”

So why the difference? It’s all in the type of information used. According to Duke’s researchers, the Red List needs to up its game.

“Good as it is, the Red List assessment process dates back 25 years and does not make use of advances in geospatial technologies that have placed powerful new tools at our fingertips, including vastly improved digital maps, regular global assessments of land use changes from satellite images, and maps showing which areas of the planet are protected by national parks,” Stuart L. Pimm, study senior investigator and Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, told the National Geographic.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

The lack of satellite and aerial images keep the Red List from identifying fragmented segments of deforestation or varying degrees of elevation within a habitat area that could limit the actual area within which an affected species could survive, the Duke team suggests.

The researchers used some of these very geospatial tools to reach their findings. They reviewed elevation and forest cover data to figure out how much actual useable habitat currently exists in these areas. They fed that information into the risk algorithm IUCN uses and came up with different, more concerning results than IUCN had.

Interestingly, those who assess the bird extinction risk for the IUCN Red List believe the Duke team got it wrong. Using high resolution maps and geospatial data is all well and good, they say, but the Duke team applied the information to the wrong IUCN criteria and thereby overestimated extinction risk.

However, no one disagrees that better, more comprehensive information can only help the IUCN Red List’s accuracy.

“The Red List employs rigorously objective criteria, is transparent, and democratic in soliciting comments on species decisions,” Pimm told the National Geographic. “That said, its methods are seriously outdated.”

Since 1964 the IUCN Red List has been the gold standard for information on species at risk. It remains so today, but apparently it could benefit from a big technological shot in the arm. It’s the 21st century after all. Better information means better protection for at risk species. That’s what we all want.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

63 comments

Dagmara W
Dagmara W10 months ago

Thank you.

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Melania P
Melania Padilla11 months ago

So unfair so many animals/plants are being driven to extinction, just for humans comfort or whatever. CONTROL THE HUMAN POPULATION! We all would live better!

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallusabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiranabout a year ago

noted

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Miss D.
Misss Dabout a year ago

Frances, the IUCN is already precautionary in its approach. That is why species that do not have enough data are listed as Data Deficient and not Endangered. Species that have enough data on them, and when that data fits the criteria for Endangered, are listed as Endangered. There is no point listing a species that is Data Deficient as Endangered because one could end up with species that are not Endangered, listed as so. This clouds the data and devalues the listing of Endangered as no one would know whether that species is actually Endangered or if it is Data Deficient. The IUCN are aware that there are many species listed as DD that may in fact be Endangered and they caution people using the list to bear this in mind. The issue is not with how species are listed but rather, with how the listings are used.

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Miss D.
Misss Dabout a year ago

You know, Robert Fitzgerald, the first part of your comment makes a lot of sense and is something that the organisation, Population Matters, which lobbies on issues of human over population growth and the effects on the world, is concerned about. More info on www.populationmatters.org

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Miss D.
Misss Dabout a year ago

Oh wow, thanks for the info, M F, it's appreciated.

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Cal Tasker
Cal Taskerabout a year ago

Well that's grim :'(

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Elaine W.
Elaine Wabout a year ago

The endangered species list should be a red flag warning of the endangerment of Human beings.

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Ruth C.
Ruth Cabout a year ago

I agree with Janne O.

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