Endangered in the Anthropocene: Human impacts threaten species of least concern

By many accounts, we are now living in the “Anthropocene,” an epoch defined entirely by the impacts humans have on the world. Those impacts are outsized and ever growing—and yet we’re not always aware of just how important our own influence really is. A new study shows that in one realm—endangered species conservation—paying attention to human impacts can give an assist to a system we generally think is working quite well.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Endangered Species, according to study authors from the University of York in the United Kingdom, “is based on its identification of species approaching extinction.” They argue that such an approach yields “reactive” efforts to save endangered species, when a more proactive approach might prevent problems in the first place. The place to find this proactive approach is under our own thumbs.

The researchers examined Red List assessments for 632 species of marine cone snails and matched these up with range and distribution data for those species, as well as human impacts on those areas such as pollution, fishing, and broader scale things like ocean acidification. They found that 67 species that are considered of “Least Concern” by the Red List have 70 percent or more animals living within areas that are considered high or very high human impact zones. Eighteen of the species have particularly small ranges and live entirely within those high-impact areas.

Overall, the study found that just over 75 percent of the cone snail species exposed to the highest levels of human-induced threats are “unlikely to be earmarked for conservation” based on existing criteria. The authors stressed that they are “committed supporters of the Red List and consider it an essential tool in the armory of conservation science.” Incorporating some of their criteria on human impacts, however, may serve to augment the approach and help us target the species most in need of help.

In essence, adding in some of these human impacts essentially functions as an early warning system for population declines. And as the Anthropocene picks up steam, with climate change as the terrifying backdrop, early warning systems are crucial. Only a few weeks ago we discussed another study of Red Listed species, which showed that climate change may be pushing some species from threatened to extinct even faster than we thought. In short, the Red List may be in need of a bit of an update. If human impacts are now shaping the world as fundamentally as it seems they are, it may be time to reassess some of the ways we have historically tried to save it. – Dave Levitan | November 11 2014

Source: Peters H, O’Leary BC, Hawkins JP, Roberts CM (2014). Identifying species at extinction risk using global models of anthropogenic impact, Global Change Biology. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.12749

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Richard Ling