Variation (from individual genes to species) makes ecosystems more resilient to change and provides innumerable benefits to both humans and other animals that share the planet with us. And while some environmental degradation can be reversed, the loss of variety – in this case, the extinction of species – is final.
Problem is, animal species are now going extinct a lot faster than ever before: “[…] fossil records show that current extinction levels are around 1,000 times the natural background rate. They are exacerbated by habitat loss, hunting, climate change and the introduction of invasive species and diseases,” write Elizabeth Boakes and David Redding in an article for The Conversation.
Elizabeth Boakes is a Teaching Fellow in Biodiversity and Environment Research at UCL, and David Redding – a Research Fellow at the same institution.
Needless to say, the current rate of extinction is far and away what could be considered to be a perfectly healthy, albeit somewhat distasteful, natural process which spurs evolutionary creativity by encouraging the development of new adaptations.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that rather than striking at random, extinction disproportionately affects related species that perform similar functions. For this reason, the loss of a specific group of species (say, those responsible for pollination) could lead to disastrous consequences down the road.
“Imagine a disease that only killed medical professionals – it would be far more devastating for society than one which killed similar numbers of people at random,” write Boakes and Redding.
According to a study conducted by Malcolm L. McCallum, amphibians are some of the most rapidly disappearing animals on the planet, going extinct at a rate of up to 45,000 times above the background rate, which is in line with the finding that larger species are more prone to extinction than smaller ones.
While moralising about the allegedly intrinsic value of biodiversity is not going to change the hearts and minds of those who face the attendant challenges on a daily level (think farmers and shepherds), nor is it a negative for humans when it comes to the eradication of dangerous viruses, the loss of species is, at the very least, a worthy topic for public discussion at a time of rapid climate change and resultant loss of biodiversity.