Nearly 600 plant species have become extinct in the last 250 years

James Marshall
June 12, 2019

Almost 600 plant species have disappeared from the wild over the past 250 years, a new research project found.

This figure is four times more than the number of plant extinctions on record at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Switzerland, and the researchers suggest that many more species losses remain uncounted.

However, most of the outcry around extinction has focused on animals rather than plants, authors point out-even though twice as many plant species have disappeared as mammals, birds and amphibians combined.

"Most people can name a mammal or bird that has become extinct in recent centuries, but few can name an extinct plant", said Aelys M Humphreys, assistant professor at the Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Sciences at Stockholm University.

While the study sparked alarm, researchers expressed hope that their work will be used to improve conservation efforts-particularly "on islands and in the tropics, where plant loss is common, and in areas where less is known about plant extinction such as Africa and South America".

Scientists, including experts from The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, discovered that 571 species have completely disappeared in the wild since the middle of the 18th century.

The lost plants include the Chile sandalwood, which was exploited for essential oils, the banded trinity plant, which spent much of its life underground, and the pink-flowered St Helena olive tree.

What did the study find?

At least 571 plant species, from the Chile sandalwood to the St. Helena olive, have gone extinct in the wild over the past 250 years, according to a new study that has biodiversity experts anxious about what the findings suggest for the future of life on Earth.

The researchers believe these numbers underestimate the true levels of ongoing plant extinction. However, it should be noted that 90 percent of these rediscovered plants have a high extinction risk.

Image copyright Richard Wilford Image caption The Chilean crocus: Rediscovered in 2001 after years of searching Why does plant extinction matter? This is significant because plant extinctions endanger other organisms, ecosystems and the ability of humans to survive on our planet.

Plant extinctions can lead to a whole cascade of extinctions in other organisms that rely on them, for instance insects that use plants for food and for laying their eggs.

Now a team of scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom, and Stockholm University have put together the first global analysis of plant extinction data, covering around 90,000 species-and the results are sobering.

What lessons can we learn?

The main cause of the mass plant extinction is the destruction of habitats by human activity, such as deforestation to convert land into farms, the study said. "To do this we need to support herbaria and the production of plant identification guides, we need to teach our children to see and recognize their local plants, and most importantly we need botanists for years to come".

"We depend on plants directly for food, shade and construction materials, and indirectly for "ecosystem services" such as carbon fixation, oxygen creation, and even improvement in human mental health through enjoying green spaces", Salguero-Gómez tells BBC's Helen Briggs.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

Discuss This Article

FOLLOW OUR NEWSPAPER