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12.1: Introduction to Extinction

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    Extinctions are seldom attributable to only one threat; rather, multiple stressors may act synergistically to drive the demise of a species. Pictured here is a Hewitt’s ghost frog (Heleophryne hewetti, EN), which is globally restricted to an area of 140 km2 in the Cape Floristic Region. It is threatened by alien vegetation, overly frequent fires, erosion, siltation, and construction of roads and reservoirs, all of which deteriorate its clear, fast-flowing stream habitat. Photograph by Werner Conradie, CC BY 4.0.

    Species have evolved and disappeared since the very first species (thought to be microorganisms living in hydrothermal vents) made an appearance on Earth. Some species outcompeted others for access to limiting resources; some were driven to extinction by dangerous pathogens; some just found it hard to survive in constantly evolving ecosystems. While many extinction events have been rather limited in scope and, hence, caused only one or a few extinctions at a time, there have been instances where perturbations were so impactful that they drove very large numbers of species to extinction over a short period of time. There have been five such past mass extinction events—periods marked by the sudden and dramatic loss of a large percentage of species (Figure 12.1.1). But these mass extinctions have also been followed by periods that favored increased rates of speciation, during which new species evolved to fill the niches left empty by the extinctions.

    Figure 12.1.1 There have been five past mass extinction events—periods when natural events changed Earth’s environment so dramatically that between 60–95% of species were wiped away forever—over Earth’s geological history. So far, the most dramatic extinction event occurred at the end of the Permian period, about 250 million years ago, and thought to be the result of widespread volcanic activity and climate change. The most recent mass extinction, at the end of the Cretaceous period about 65 million years ago and thought to be the result of a massive asteroid impact, saw the disappearance of non-avian dinosaurs. Source: OpenStax, 2019, CC BY 4.0.

    Nature’s ability to balance extinctions with speciation was greatly disturbed around 300,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens made their appearance on Earth. Since then, humans have gradually increased their dominance on the natural world, leading to large-scale restructuring and destruction of biological communities. Human modifications of Earth’s climatic, biological, and geochemical environments accelerated greatly during the rise of agriculture (12,000–15,000 years ago) and again during the Industrial Revolution (1760–1840), when fossil fuel usage and urbanization became the norm. Now, many scientists recognize today’s new and distinct human-dominated geological epoch, the Anthropocene (Waters et al., 2015). One notable feature of the Anthropocene is that species extinctions are increasing at such rapid rates that many conservation biologists now recognize that we are also witnessing the beginnings of Earth’s sixth extinction episode (Barnosky et al., 2011; Ceballos et al., 2017). However, unlike previously, this extinction episode is caused by human activities rather than natural events.

    12.1: Introduction to Extinction is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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