Species Census: Yes, the 6th Mass Extinction Is Happening Now

By Andrew Moseman | March 2, 2011 5:34 pm

It’s no secret that an alarming number of species around the world, especially vertebrates, are in trouble. But is the notion that the Earth is on the brink of a sixth major extinction event—the first since the dinosaur die-off—true, or alarmist? In Nature this week, a team of scientists sought to answer the question directly by counting as many species (and extinctions) as they could in the fossil record and the recent historical record. The result is gloomy news: There’s still a chance to avert much of the crisis, but if nothing changes, such a mass extinction event really could happen in the span of just a few centuries.

Mass extinctions include events in which 75 percent of the species on Earth disappear within a geologically short time period, usually on the order of a few hundred thousand to a couple million years. It’s happened only five times before in the past 540 million years of multicellular life on Earth. (The last great extinction occurred 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs were wiped out.) At current rates of extinction, the study found, Earth will enter its sixth mass extinction within the next 300 to 2,000 years. [MSNBC]

That range of time the researchers give is so large because of the great diversity of life—it makes it hard to track exactly how many species are disappearing, and how quickly. (Indeed, DISCOVER has covered how biologists are discovering many new species these days just as those species face extinction). So Anthony Barnosky and his team made conservative estimates based on the available evidence. For instance, they pegged the rate of mammal extinction at 80 species out of a total of 5,000-plus in the last five centuries. That may not sound like much, but when you consider the speed at which things typically happen on a geologic scale, it is a faster rate of species loss than the previous five mass extinctions saw, scientists believe.

The picture gets even grimmer when all mammals currently endangered or threatened are added to the count. If those all disappear within a century, then by 334 years from now, 75% of all mammal species will be gone, says Barnosky. “Look outside of your window. Imagine taking away three-quarters of the living things you see and ask yourself if you want to live in that world.” [ScienceNOW]

If that many species disappeared, he says, it would take millions of years for biodiversity to recover. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“So far, only one to two percent of all species have gone gone extinct in the groups we can look at clearly, so by those numbers, it looks like we are not far down the road to extinction. We still have a lot of Earth’s biota to save,” Barnosky said. [Vancouver Sun]

Related Content:
80beats: Were Coal Explosions to Blame for the Planet’s Biggest Die-Off?
80beats: In the Permian Period, Erupting Super-Volcanoes May Have Killed Half the Planet
DISCOVER: The Day Everything Died
DISCOVER: New Species: Found Today, Lost Tomorrow

Image: iStockphoto

  • http://clubneko.net/ nick

    This could also be a good thing. If the dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct, where would we be?

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    it is a faster rate of species loss than the previous five mass extinctions saw, scientists believe

    Na, going by the fossil record … Uhm think about how stuff happens on this planet. Major impacts, volcanism, earthquakes, major methane releases, etc., etc., etc.,
    I think many extinctions happen rather rapidly.

  • amphiox

    This could also be a good thing. If the dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct, where would we be?

    It could be a good thing for some species not currently dominant. It is always a bad thing for those species that are at present dominant in the ecosystem.

    So guess which species is on top right now?

  • Willy

    Did anyone consider that perhaps species have always gone extinct at this rate? It could be that most species never enter the fossil record.

    Just a thought…

  • Maurice

    “The first 4 billion years of Life on Earth” by Dr. Richard Fortey. A wonderful book to put it all in perspective. Tells you how it developed by geologic age and what factors accounted for the different species coming and going. Gives you a great point from which to start evaluating the concept.

  • Jumblepudding

    I feel like earth’s ecosystem is a company about to experience huge layoffs.

  • Wesley

    @ Willy: Most species don’t enter the fossil record. The only sensible thing is that the scientist’s used the 75% drop in species registered in the fossil record and extrapolated that to mean 75% of all species all died out, which is definitely the most probable explanation for a drop in species in the fossil record..

  • mariner

    Has anyone considered how many species have “come to light” while we look at all those that have become extinct?

  • Nullius in Verba

    Can anyone tell me what has happened to the rate at which new species are being created?

    The rarest and least adaptable species already on the borderline go more easily, but can you extrapolate that rate in a straight line?

    If species number behaves like a random walk, or like a stock-market curve, wouldn’t the gradient over very short periods be much larger than over long ones? And wouldn’t the geological record smooth such a line?

  • James

    I’m surprised it’s not happening faster considering how violent, selfish, and greedy we all are.

  • me

    if we were all completely violent, selfish and greedy then this article wouldn’t exist and no-one would care

  • sssrema

    James, I completely agree. As well as with the first comment. We, as a species, need to be stopped by this mass extinction before we completely destroy our Earth and all its resources. This is a good thing. It’s as if it is Mother Nature’s way of cleansing the environment of the filth. I am sorrowful for the future generations that will have to deal with it, but it’s all going to shxt anyway.

  • Albert Bakker

    Is there really an intrinsic value to biodiversity except maybe esthetics for the one animal that developed a taste for such luxury? (And then preferably enjoyed from a comfortable chair and a handy remote.) I doubt it. Be there too much interdependency between species, too much specialism at the bottom, too little flexibility intermediately, then one day the house of cards comes tumbling down, giving rise to the glorious opportunity of new accelerated speciation.

    Always look on the bright side of mass-death. 5 more billion years and numerous mass-extinction events to go, that seems to me the best way forward. To allow yourself to wallow in misanthropy at present seems a bit presumptuous on these time scales.

  • Jason

    Albert, I don’t think the 5-billion year perspective is what really matters to anyone. What we should be concerned about is maintaining biodiversity while we’re still alive on this planet.

  • Albert Bakker

    But why? Why should we want to maintain “biodiversity.” That is keep species alive in reservations or in artificial circumstances even more shielded off from the world as is and in which they can’t survive. I don’t think we can do it anyway, but say we could for some time postpone the inevitable and disregard the cost. What is it actually good for in the grand scheme of things?

    I can think of only one good answer to really be serious about this and that it is in our own interest. I mean not for their nice color or because they are so cute when they’re small, but because our existence depended on them. I would like to think that, but I am actually not all that convinced.

  • Daniel J. Andrews

    Barnosky et al. say our recent species loss is not yet a mass extinction (compared to the other mass extinctions in history).

    First, the recent loss of species is dramatic and serious but does not
    yet qualify as a mass extinction in the palaeontological sense of the Big
    Five. …. It is encouraging that there is still
    much of the world’s biodiversity left to save, but daunting that doing so
    will require the reversal of many dire and escalating threats.

    But even using different ways of determining extinction rates (some of the commenters may find answers to their questions about that if they have access to the paper) it does seem very likely that the next historical mass extinction is near.

    …there are clear indications
    that losing species now in the ‘critically endangered’ category
    would propel the world to a state of mass extinction that has previously
    been seen only five times in about 540 million years. Additional losses of
    species in the ‘endangered’ and ‘vulnerable’ categories could accomplish
    the sixth mass extinction in just a few centuries.

    Things are set for a “perfect storm” of extinction unfortunately.

    It may be of particular
    concern that this extinction trajectory would play out under conditions
    that resemble the ‘perfect storm’ that coincided with past mass extinctions:
    multiple, atypical high-intensity ecological stressors, including
    rapid, unusual climate change and highly elevated atmospheric CO2.

    I’d like to think we have the foresight and wisdom to stop it, but our own history in this regards isn’t exactly reassuring.

  • http://www.answersingenesis.org/ Bill

    Not sure if you guys are Christian or not but the earth is only about 6000 yours old. http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/aid/v6/n1/yec-view-summary

  • Jay Fox

    @17 Bill:

    Keep your religion. The earth is far older than that. Humans are older than that. As far as they can tell, the pyramids in Egypt are as old, or older. Ankgor Wat? Way older.

    Your bible stories may only be 6K years old, but the earth began way before old men sat around a camp fire telling stories of alien encounters.

    As for species die-off, what should we expect? We are over-running the planet. Ruining it as we go. Using up resources way faster than we can find or exploit more. We are the “too many animals in the enclosure” about to experience a great die-off of our own. The reckoning is coming, and it has nothing to do with religion.

  • Voice in the Wilderness

    Do you really want to know what’s going on?

    Read (Ecclesiastes chap 9:verse 12), (Ezekiel chap 38:verse 20) and (Hosea chap 4:verses 2-3). Then if you believe, know that Jesus is returning for his bride (the church) very soon.

    Don’t be caught off guard. Don’t be left behind!

    Reach out to God. Confess your faults and failings to him. Ask him for his “free” gift of pardon purchased for all by Jesus on the cross. Ask Jesus into your life as Lord and Savior.

    If you do this you will have nothing to fear (2nd Timothy chap 1: verse 7).

  • David

    Hey it all doesn’t matter. Have you considered the fact that family radio says that Judgement day is May 21, 2011 ? And if that doesn’t turn out, the Mayan Calender ends next year-Dec 21, 2011 to be exact-and people say their Calender ends because they knew the world would end on that day so why make the calender any longer? Believe me folks you’ll be hearing a lot about the Mayan Calender next year. People will become hysterical about it as the day draws closer.

    And if that doesn’t materialize there’s always the fact that the glaciers are melting, the polar bears are dying, the coastal cities are being buried in water, as Al Gore says, The World is in a Fever. So the plain fact is–We are doomed. Doomed.

    That may all be satire on today’s insanity but John 3:16 is definitely no joke. Best to take it very seriously.

  • Carmine Fragione

    Why does anyone propose that it is the proper purpose of humanity to avoid an extinction or save a planet ? Nature endures through it’s own design without human assistance, and so why should we prepare to react to some prediction of massive extinctions, if our involvement begins to usurp even Natural Law ? It only seems to me that some propaganda agenda must be involved, a type of political capital to expend on the issue that human beings must do something, but what ? If we tried to save a species, it might only boomerang as adversely affecting all else, and instead of saving a world, we hasten the end of it. Why should people go around saying “we are doomed” we all are going to die naturally anyway, are we to play god with the world and suppose that we are saviors in the universe. I say , live well and prosper, and expect to die one day, and be satisfied. God can only hold the cure for death, anyway. Let it Be.

  • http://www.answersingenesis.org/ Bill

    hey i like what you have to say Voice in the Wilderness Matthew 3:3
    and David John 3:16 is one we should all know!
    Jay Fox Says :We are over-running the planet. I belive that looking thourgh an your world view humans came aroud aboud 250,000 years age buy that time line we should have over ran the planet 244,000 year ago the way we are going. if you take a deeper look into the Bible they are not just storys they are the inspired word of God. you should do alittle home work and find out the truth for yourself. most all people that do not belive in God dont belive B/C they dont want to be held acoutable for there actions so they come up with all sorts of excuses so that they can fill that there is no God but in the end we all will DIE there is no why around it. the good news is God is coming the bad news is God is coming it just depends whos side you are on Gods or the worlds.

    Carmine Fragione:God can only hold the cure for death, anyway God does hold the cure for death is from sin he cured it with his Son Jesus Christ thourgh him you may have eternal life. He did it! the cure.

  • Ali

    Mass Extinction has begun….. so true…. some unique Event.. check out my Video about ” Millions of SeaShells appearing daily on Pakistani beaches ” Unexplained phenomenon….

    North Atlantic Current is dying out…. that means Ice Age for Northern Countries…. Canada, usa, europe, russia, china.

    Pakistan Floods of July 2010 were also caused by Broken and Later Blocked Current over Pakistan.

    Times are changing…. Support Electric Car and Maglev Train…. Reduce Pollution… its choking Humanity… boycott Oil – patrol – CNG – gas.

    Clean and Inexpensive Energy…. is the way of the Future

  • Ali

    Moutain Cracks appearing in Himalayas the highest mountains of the world….

    ppl. scared in hunza valley pakistan‏…

    check out this story…


    there were several mild Earthquakes in PK in Nov. 2010

    huge Landslide in the Himalayas some time in 2010 … dont remember exact date…

    The importance of this region is due to Himalayas… the highest montains of the world…. & if they are Rumbling its Dangerous

  • Ali

    Earthquake 7.4 jolted whole of Pakistan on Jan. 19 2011 including afghanistan, iran, sharjah and new dehli …

    dont know wat kinda mind boggling Earthquake it was…
    and right after 6 days …

    another Earthquake measuring 6.3 on Jan. 24 2011…

    it must be related to Mountains Cracking in Nothern Pakistan.. one mountain Even fell earlier on Jan. 2010 creating a huge Lake… search youtube for attabad Lake disaster

  • Ali

    Another UPDATE..

    The Mega Gigantic Floods of Ramadan 2010 in pakistan that affected over 20 Million ppl.

    caused by the “Stuck weather system” same type of Stuck weather system(believe to be Super Tornadoes) destroyed the Ancient people of Aad (believe to be Gaints, came after people of Noah)–

    A deadly heatwave in Russia & @ the same time flood Armageddon in Pakistan,

    check these 2 articles




  • Ali

    Fight for Clean and Free Fuel… (((( Electric Cars… Maglev Turbines and Trains….))))

    its your right to drive atleast 40 miles in less $ 1 = Electric Cars

    its your right to pay less $10 / month Electricity charges = Maglev Turbines

    its your right to pay $1 for interstate + intercity Travel / month = Maglev Train

    fight for your right to make this world a better place for you and for the whole of Humanity….

  • Ali


    :::No Scientific Explanation::: Millions of Seashells apearing every day on Clifton beach, karachi, Pakistan.
    Just Last year in March 2009 ” Dolphins Beaching ” happened here on Pakistani Beaches.
    Wat is surprising is that not a single private TV channel has covered this huge Event, No discussion forums on this Topic.
    Not to mention there are large numbers of Earthquakes happening all around the world in the year 2010.
    My thought is that all these Events are Signs of Great fluctuations in Earth’s Magnetic Field…
    This magnetic field fluctuation is happening due to the loss of Lubricant of Oil and Gas inside Earth’s Crust.
    Oil and Gas acts as Lubricant for Earth’s Crust Movement. Now that we have taken out so much Oil and Gas. Earth’s Layers have lost this lubricant and as a result we will observe much bigger more devastating Mega Earthquakes… just like Grand Canyon(Mega Earthquakes created Grand Canyons)
    Electric Cars and Maglev Electric Turbines and Maglev Train, are the way of the future… if we want to save ourselves and humanity and future generations

  • s

    hmmm… Ali is on a spamfest. and i think he’s been smokin’ something funky too. Oil and gas a lubricant for the earth’s crust? Thanks Ali – that was one of the funniest comments I’ve read in a while.

    Laughter is the best medicine.

    oh…and #12 – since you are advocating we as a species should all die off, how come you have posted here and not blown your brains out? Lead the way for the rest of us. lol

  • James E.

    I always find it strange when people talk about if we should meddle in mother nature.

    Like #21: “Nature endures through it’s own design without human assistance, and so why should we prepare to react to some prediction of massive extinctions, if our involvement begins to usurp even Natural Law?”

    Its like they feel we exist outside of nature and this Natural Law. We are all part of nature and everything we do is natural since we came from this universe. I am not saying that everything we do is correct or that we are not capable of making this planet less hospitable or even un-inhabitable. Just that the argument that it is not natural has no bearing.

  • Matt

    Well the final mass-extinction event will happen in a few million years when the sun destroys the Earth.

    At no point in Earths life did any creature on it have a chance of surviving it, until Humans came along.

    So anyone that says we are destroying Earth is very short-sighted and a moron, we have in fact given the Earths species a chance to survive passed the destruction of the planet. We will be saving (ALL) species from certain extinction.

    The question is how many species can we take with us and unless someone is willing to build a spaceship the size of Earth with self-contained ecosystems for every habitat, im afraid the bad news is some will be lost.

    Now as some one pointed out we are all transient, will die and others will use the same raw material and live. How much of the planet do we need to use to save it.

    If we save 1 species (ourselves) we at least continue the legacy of Planet Earth and we can reproduce any and all creatures we have DNA for etc (hopefully, technology letting).

    So yes petrol is bad, CFCs is bad, hanging is bad, forraging for meals is bad, nuking each other is bad, but we have grown passed these. We are getting better all the time.

    Scientists have been recording DNA for a long time now, keeping samples etc, all this is for a reason.

    So I do not worry about species going extinct today, when we as a race will SAVE an entire planet.

    Perspective people.

  • gail

    Good god, how did you people end up in this discussion? Shouldn’t you be in Bible study? The reason we care about biodiversity is twofold. The first reason is selfish: Because the more species we have on earth, the larger our pool of resources for developing medical treatments for human diseases. Related to that: animal and plant life are interconnected. Without bees, you don’t get fruit. Without soil insects, you don’t get vegetables and grains. To put it simply, and simplistically, when species start to die out, it wreaks havoc with things we care about: climate, food, and human health.
    The second reason we should care is altruistic: Because mankind has had a big hand in decimating some of these populations. It’s an ethical challenge. You god people ought to know something about ethics, right? It never ceases to amaze me how so many bible thumpers are morally challenged.

  • http://edisonandersen.livejournal.com/ Shardul Rajan

    I have been checking out some of your stories and i must say nice stuff. I will make sure to bookmark your blog. Non IM Riches Review

  • Miss 12 year old

    We will actually be extinct a long time before that because we are destroying the earth by driving cars and running air conditioning all day long. It is us the people who are destroying earth every one knows that but no one thinks about it. I f we don’t change we won’t be on earth much longer. No one is doing anything about it because the think it is good what they are doing by driving to work every day and earning money. The truth is that we are greedy and our greed is blinding us. Did you know that 20 percent of deaths around the world are cause by us poluting the air and water. We need to change and if we don’t we will all be extinct in the next 6 years or less.

  • http://www.jws-telemarketing.co.uk JWS

    Miss 12 years old has a point.

  • Jack

    Miss 12 year old, 6 years or less? Thats not a realistic approach at all, unless there is a nuclear war that destroys most of life on Earth. It will take MUCH longer than 6 years for us to go extinct, I think it will take at least 5-9 centuries be before Humans go extinct if we keep going on the same path, as well as decline in reproduction enough to allow our extinction to become a more likely possibility. However, due to the fact that we are the dominant species and have a population of around about 7 billion people, that is highly unlikely scenario, but its still possible.

  • http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com benjamindavidsteele

    Going by these comments, we don’t have to worry about ignorance and indifference going extinct any time soon.


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