Nature Brains: Species Loss in the Age of Man

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Published on July 3rd, 2012  |  Discuss This Article  

Picture a place on earth that has yet to experience a species extinction. Chances are, the picture in your head is of a wild, remote region with not a human in sight.

It might be time to update that vision.

new study from Nature Conservancy scientists just published in the journal Conservation Biology has identified the world’s habitats that are still extinction-free—and surprisingly, not all are untouched by people.

In the study, Conservancy lead scientist M. Sanjayan and co-authors examined historical and current range data of 392 terrestrial vertebrates to identify where modern extinctions (within the past 200 years) have occurred. They then looked for correlations between these locations and human activity.

While the majority of extinctions have occurred in places with high human activity, as would be expected, a whopping 48% have not. In fact, in some places the exact opposite was true. For instance, deserts have low human activity but high species loss. On the other hand, tropical and subtropical forests have high human activity but low species loss.

“The real question here is, why?” says Sanjayan. “Why does the covenant between people and nature remain unbroken in a few geographies, well into the modern era?”  

The authors identified 17 regions with no species extinctions, plus 6 regions where successful reintroductions of species have occurred, for a total of 23 intact areas worldwide. These areas cover some 20 million square kilometers, spanning 5 continents and nearly all major land biomes from tundra to grasslands.

“These are nature’s last Edens” says Sanjayan. “It’s really kind of amazing that there are even any places left that have survived into the modern era without extinctions.”

Just one U.S. region in the lower 48 states made the list: the Crown of the Continent, stretching across 18 million acres of the western United States and Canada.

The authors also note that just 22% of the intact areas were protected, suggesting that protected status does not necessarily provide a reprieve from extinction. The authors conclude that inclusive, community-based conservation efforts are worth pursuing.

“Our study shows that some places can still remain ‘wild and intact’ even with human presence,” says Sanjayan.

And for those worried about the Anthropocene, that should be some welcome news.

(Image: an Arabian oryx, extinct in the wild by the early 1970s but now coming back with the help of captive breeding programs. Source: Wikimedia user MathKnight via a Creative Commons license.)

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