The Largest Plant Survey Ever Unearths a Disturbing Trend

While some species of plants are doing better than we thought, over the past 250 years nearly 600 plant species have virtually disappeared, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The research looked at over 300,000 plant species from around the world — making the study “by an order of magnitude” larger than any other of its kind. The researchers — which included teams from Duke University in North Carolina and Stockholm University in Sweden — used data compiled by experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the U.K. The database, which dates back to 1988, aims to track every known plant species and so offers almost unparalleled insight into the rate of species growth and loss. 

Beginning in 2015, the researchers analysed plant species loss across multiple variables and used other reference points to get a wider snapshot of the extinctions. They found that since the 1753 publication of Carl Linnaeus’s famous botanical text “Species Plantarum,” about 1,234 species were thought to have gone extinct.

However, as with all data that classifies elements of the natural world, the picture is a bit more complicated. Around half of those species have actually been rediscovered or reclassified. As a result, the total number of extinctions is more likely to sit around 571. This is still a substantial loss. And it’s worth noting, as the researchers do, that this is only dealing with known plant species. There may be species that blinked out of existence before we even had the chance to classify them.  

The loss of 571 species sounds significant. But if that doesn’t set alarm bells ringing, the researchers warn that it is the scale of extinctions that is truly disturbing.

The extinction level is twice that of animal, bird and reptile species. And it’s happening at around 500 times faster than the background extinction rate, or the rate that plants would be expected to go extinct because of natural changes in environmental conditions. Among the plant species to have gone extinct are the Chile sandalwood, the Saint Helena olive and more. 

It’s worth noting the researchers believe the true figure for extinction is far higher. Plants may be classed as still present even if they are only found in botanical gardens — meaning they are functionally extinct in the wild but aren’t counted in these numbers because technically they do still exist. In addition, while the database is a great source of information, it is not possible to keep it constantly updated due to logistics, cost and time.

“Plants underpin all life on Earth,” Dr. Eimear Nic Lughadha of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew told The Guardian. “They provide the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat, as well as making up the backbone of the world’s ecosystems — so plant extinction is bad news for all species.”

Other than the bare fact of species loss, the research also gives us some other interesting insights. One element that emerges is such places as Hawaii, the Cape of South Africa, Australia and Brazil are among the areas with the most extinctions. India and Madagascar all feature on that list, too.

In some senses, this is not so surprising. They are regions that have large swathes of flora. And we know equatorial and tropical regions are at greater immediate risk from the effects of climate change — for example, extreme heat and flash flooding, as well as sea level rise. Several of these places also have other pressures, such as human-led mass land clearing. This suggests the extinction threat is likely to get worse, not better.

But there were some bright spots in this study. The beautiful Chilean crocus, though still rare in the wild, was rediscovered in 2001 after scientists thought it had gone extinct, and other species were also rediscovered. That demonstrates the resilience of nature — and that there may yet be hope for some of the species we’ve lost.

Every year, there are around 2,000 species added to our catalog of plant life as scientists make new discoveries. However, what this research underscores is the rate of extinction appears to be accelerating, too. And unless we act to curb climate change’s effects and our own habits that lead to loss of flora, the problem will get worse and will likely cost us animal life and potentially whole habitats, too.

Photo credit: enviromantic/Getty Images

47 comments

Chad A
Chad A2 days ago

Thank you.

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Richard E Cooley

Thank you.

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Donald M
Thomas M16 days ago

Thank you

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Hannah A
Hannah Aabout a month ago

thank you for posting

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John N
Daniel Nabout a month ago

Thanks for sharing

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Michael F
Michael Friedmannabout a month ago

Thank You for Sharing This !!!

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Sherri S
Sherri Sabout a month ago

Not surprising.

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Mark T
Mark Turnerabout a month ago

Ty.

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Linda Wallace
Linda Wallaceabout a month ago

There are too many humans and we are so careless of other living things.

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Freya H
Freya Habout a month ago

No plants, no oxygen - no air to breathe. Also, no animals, so nothing to eat. We humans MUST stop fouling our nest with our greed, our fossil fuels, our breeding like rabbits. We must learn to share this planet with our fellow-travelers, and maintain it in order to sustain life.

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