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New Species for the IUCN Red List

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The biodiversity of life on Earth is disappearing faster than at any time in human history. Among the many people sounding the alarm of our disappearing natural history the IUCN Red List is the instrument that is used to measure biodiversity loss and the species that are most at risk of extinction. People like Elizabeth Kolbert and many others contend that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event and echos of her sentiments can be heard throughout conservation, environmental, and social media circles in every language on earth.

Monarch butterfly_Danaus plexippus_NE_copyright William Warby
Although it is estimated that 90% of Monarch butterfly populations have declined from their original levels, funding for the global assessment of this species for the IUCN Red List has not been provided. Photo credit: William Warby

The conservation of biodiversity has been placed as a global priority in several international conventions and agreements and it is clear that healthy and diverse ecosystems support people in many interacting ways.  The conservation and development community are primed to incorporate into this knowledge, much of which has been developed through the interdisciplinary cooperation between global and local organizations and people, into  development plans that include species and ecosystems as critical components of conservation strategies.

Mulanje Cedar (Widdringtonia whytei) CR_Russ Clare
Although many immediately think of animals when we speak about species conservation, plants often face similar or more pervasive threats while their conservation often takes a lower profile. In terrestrial systems, plants like this Mulanje Cedar host suites of other organisms that depend upon this species for their growth and survival. Photo Credit: Russ Clare.

In each of these decisions and processes, the IUCN Red List is an indispensable source of information on species natural history, conservation status and how these are connected to human livelihoods. The information contained within the IUCN Red List is used by governments, non-governmental organizations, charitable organizations, educational institutions, the private sector, land managers, and private individuals. From this information, the IUCN Red List helps guide decision-making processes and the policies that result to account for and conserve biodiversity throughout the world.

wobbegong_Richard Ling
The Wobbegong is a species of shark that so-far has escaped much of the pressures placed on other shark species. Marine species conservation is essential for our own terrestrial ecosystems and marine species should be given special attention since the ocean looks the same from the surface, with or without the species below. Marine species are generally under-represented in conservation assessments since distribution and population data for these species is difficult and expensive to collect. Photo credit: Richard Lung

The IUCN Red List has currently assessed about 74,000 species. This may seem like a large number, but when compared against the global extent of species that have been discovered and described (listed as 1.3 million in the encyclopedia of life), this figure only represents about 5% of species that have names.

What’s clear is that what we know about the extent biodiversity on Earth is very little when compared with the true number of species out there. Scientists estimate that 80% of the species on Earth have not yet been discovered and for those that have been discovered the IUCN Red List has, in 50 years been able to comprehensively assess all mammals, birds, amphibians, sharks, conifers, and reef-building corals.

Smutsia temminckii_Darren Pietersen
Pangolins are quickly becoming one of the most threatened species groups on the planet. The sister group to carnivores, this small group of bizarre creatures are being eaten to extinction throughout their Asian and African ranges. Little is known about these species since they are nocturnal and solitary. Thankfully, all pangolin species have been assessed for the IUCN Red List, which will help guide pangolin conservation. Photo Credit: Darren Pietersen

Although the IUCN Red List is already important, as you may imagine, comprehensive conservation of biodiversity is challenging when such a small proportion of biodiversity has been assessed. In order to make the IUCN Red List a more comprehensive indicator of the status of global biodiversity, IUCN has initiated an accelerated process to increase the number of species assessed by the Red List to 160,000 by 2020. We believe that this figure is an achievable goal for a process that requires the assessment of 86,000 additional species.

Generally, the conservation assessment of a species costs roughly $250 USD for each species, and is usually completed in distinct taxonomic units. For instance, the IUCN Species Programme is currently in the process of a global assessment of reptile species.

Acanthodactylus felicis_VU_copyright Roberto Sindaco
IUCN is currently preparing a global reptile assessment. Reptiles also include turtles and tortoises, which are one of the most threatened vertebrate species groups. Small lizards like Acanthodactylus felicis often go unnoticed and invasive reptiles are serious threats to biodiversity throughout the tropics. Photo Credit: Roberto Sindaco

Over the coming years, we hope to foster global support to make the IUCN Red List a more complete barometer of life that can assist the individuals and institutions of the world in including biodiversity in each decision-making process from local land use decisions to national and global policies.

If you would like to learn more about this process, about the history of the IUCN Red List, and about how you can be a part of the solution to biodiversity loss, please visit THE IUCN RED LIST  50th ANNIVERSARY or click below to sign our species pledge

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by

Craig R. Beatty

Comments

  1. Barry O'Dwyer
    Earlwood, Sydney, Australia
    September 16, 2014, 9:07 am

    Could the loss of biodiversity through deforestation in Africa be somehow linked to the Ebola epidemic in Africa?

    • This is a very good question. While I’m hesitant to broach the specific causes and effects of the current Ebola epidemic in Africa, there is a more general cause and effect relationship between disease and deforestation.

      In terms of deforestation, when there is a large tract of forested land, generally there are a suite of species that live in the forest. Like any population of living things, disease is simply a part of living. Individuals of any species contract disease and transmit it in much the same ways that people do. Take, for instance, the assumption that it is cold weather that drives illness. When the weather becomes colder I hear people explain that the cold weather causes illness. The reality however is that as the weather may change from warm to cool or cold, more people find themselves indoors with many other people – it is not the cold that makes people ill, it is the increased proximity to other people combined with the probability that one of them is currently contagious.

      This exact same logic can be applied to deforestation. Within a large forest ecosystem diseases will be prevalent, but their transmission to other individuals is dependent on the proximity of those individuals to the contagion. When an area of forest is reduced, individuals are more highly concentrated in what forest remains and transmission rates of disease increase between individuals. In this way deforestation can drive the spread of disease in animal populations.

      This tenuous situation can often combine with the fact that in many parts of the world, people intimately depend on forests for food, fuel, and medicine. As deforestation reduces this resource for people, they are also concentrated in the remaining forest patches acquiring these resources and come into contact with the refugee species from other deforested areas, who may be experiencing increased transmission of disease in their populations, as described above. The consequence of this is that you have a concentration of species that may be experiencing increased disease outbreaks and people dependent on forest resources in whatever remnant forests remain. From the perspective of a contagious disease, this is a situation where luck is a product of preparation and opportunity.