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8.6: Characteristics of Threatened Species

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    26808
  • While a great number of factors may make a species vulnerable to extinction, conservation biologists have observed that species most vulnerable to extinction generally fall under one of six main groups:

    • Species with small populations: Some species have very small populations, consisting of just a few individuals. Such small populations are highly vulnerable to random variations in demography or environmental conditions, and to the loss of genetic diversity—all factors that increase the risk of extinction (Section 8.7). Species whose population sizes naturally fluctuate between large and small populations also fall in this category, as they are at an increased risk of extinction during the small population phases of those fluctuations.
    • Species with declining populations: Trends in population sizes tend to persist, so populations that are declining in abundance face a high risk of extinction (Caughley, 1994) unless conservation managers identify and address the causes of decline. Species impacted by the threats discussed in Chapters 5–7 generally also have declining populations.
    • Species with restricted distribution ranges: Some species, such as those that are restricted to oceanic islands; mountains peaks; or isolated lakes, can be found only in a limited geographic range. A major disturbance, such as a cyclone/hurricane or drought, could easily affect that entire species’ range, potentially driving the species to extinction.
    • Species with only one or a few populations: A sufficiently large disturbance—such as a wildfire, storm, or disease outbreak—can wipe out a single population of a species. For a species with only one population, that means its extinction, while the loss of even a single population leaves species with only a few populations more vulnerable to the next disturbance. Species in this category (few populations) overlap with those in the previous category (restricted distribution ranges) because species with few populations tend to have restricted ranges.
    • Species that are exploited by people: Overharvesting can easily reduce a population to the point of extinction (Section 7.2). Even if overharvesting is stopped just before the point of extinction, it may still have reduced a population to a size where it becomes susceptible to one or more of the three additional pressures faced by small populations (Section 8.7).
    • Species with critical symbiotic relationships: Species that are members of obligate symbiotic relationships (where one species cannot survive without another) will go extinct if its host disappears. For instance, larvae of the rhinoceros stomach botfly (Gyrostigma rhinocerontis) mature in the stomach lining of African rhinoceros, and no other species (Barraclough, 2006). Thus, if the host species (the rhinoceros) were to go extinct, so would the botfly, Africa’s largest fly species. This phenomenon in which one species’ extinction leads to the extinction of other is called a coextinction (Koh et al., 2004), while a series of linked coextinctions is called an extinction cascade (Section 4.2.1).

    The following characteristics are also linked with extinction, although the links are not as strong as is the case with the previous six categories:

    • Animal species with large body sizes: Large animals generally require large ranges and more food, have lower rates of reproduction, and have smaller population sizes relative to smaller animals. Often, they are harvested by humans for material benefits (see Box 8.1). Consequently, within groups of related species, the largest are generally also the most vulnerable to extinction—that is, a larger species of carnivore, ungulate, or whale is more likely to go extinct than a smaller carnivore, ungulate, or whale.
    • Species that require a large home range: Individuals or social groups of some species must forage over wide areas to fulfil their needs. When portions of their range are being degraded or fragmented, the remaining area will eventually be too small to support a viable population.
    • Species that are poor dispersers: Moving to more suitable habitat is a common survival response following altered environmental conditions. But species with poor dispersal abilities may be doomed to extinction if they are unable to move to more suitable areas elsewhere (see e.g. discussion on range-shift gaps, Section 6.3.5).
    • Seasonal migrants: A migratory species depends on intact ecosystems at two or more locations to complete its life cycle (see Box 5.3). If those ecosystems, either at stop-over sites along migration routes and/or at migratory endpoints, are damaged, the species may be at risk of extinction.
    • Species with low genetic diversity: Because genetic diversity (Section 3.2) enables species to adapt to changing environmental conditions, species with low genetic diversity are more vulnerable to extinction because they have less ability to adapt to new diseases, new predators, or recent changes in their ecosystems.
    • Species that evolved in stable ecosystems: Species that evolved in relatively stable environments (e.g. tropical ecosystems) are often threatened with extinction because under stabile conditions, a species is unlikely to retain the ability to adapt to environmental changes such as altered microclimates.
    • Species with specialised requirements: Specialist species are often threatened with extinction because they are unable to adapt to altered ecosystems.
    • Group-living species: A range of factors leaves group-living species at risk of extinction. For example, a herd of ungulates, a flock of birds at their night-time roost, or a school of fish can be harvested in its entirely by people using highly effective techniques. Even if some individuals remain, the harvesting may still leave the population below a critical threshold needed for effective foraging, mating, or territorial defence. This link between population size/density and individual fitness is termed the Allee effect (Section 8.7.2).
    • Species that have had no prior contact with people: Species that encounter people for the first time are ecologically naïve—they lack avoidance strategies that promote survival during these encounters. Ecologically naïve species thus have a higher chance of extinction than species that have already survived human contact.
    • Species closely related to species that recently went extinct: Groups of closely-related taxa, where some members are threatened or already extinct, often share characteristics that elevate their threat of extinction. Groups of related taxa that include many threatened species include apes, cranes, sea turtles, and cycads.
    • Species that live on islands: Island species generally exhibit many of the characteristics mentioned above. In addition, the mere fact that an island is surrounded by ocean means that species that are unable to swim or fly have nowhere to go when they need to escape a threat.
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