Endangered species

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The ladybug beetle is part of a synergistic "team" of three aphid predators that help alfalfa farmers in the Midwest Credit: Bradley Cardinale, UCSB
"The exploration of space takes place at the same time as the Earth's own oceans, seas, and fresh water areas grow increasingly polluted. Many of the Earth's habitats, animals, plants, insects, and even micro-organisms that we know as rare may not be known at all by future generations. We have the capability, and the responsibility. We must act before it is too late."

The Dalai Lama

Apart from the fact that every living organism has the right to live, plants and animals hold medicinal, agricultural, ecological, commercial and aesthetic/recreational value. Endangered species must be protected and saved so that future generations can experience their presence and value.


Why should I be aware of it?

Groundbreaking statistical analysis conducted by Nature journal demonstrates that the preservation of biodiversity – both the number and type of species – is needed to maintain ecological balance and "services." The concern about losing numbers of species versus types of species has been an area of scientific controversy for over a decade.

What this really means is that the extinction of species from our planet will change the way pests and diseases are controlled, organic wastes are broken down and recycled, food is produced by ecosystems, and water is purified. According to Diane S. Srivastava, second author and professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of British Columbia "Until recently, scientists knew a lot about the causes of extinctions, but surprisingly little about their consequences. Our study shows that biodiversity matters. Ecosystems with more species function better, that is, they are more efficient in moving energy and matter. In practical terms, this means that diverse ecosystems are better at, for example, controlling pests, breaking down organic matter, and absorbing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas."

About one-third to one-half of all the species on the planet are expected to be lost in the next 100 years, and currently species are going extinct at thousands of times faster than they have historically. The losses are due to the cutting down of rainforests, development, pollution, and the introduction of exotic species that take over the niches of indigenous species.


When the Europeans arrived in North America, American Chestnuts comprised one-fourth of the trees in the Appalachian forests. These trees supported not only wildlife, but also the people living in the area. Their livelihood depended on selling nuts and chestnut timber. An Asian fungus, which native chestnuts had little resistance to, was detected in 1904, and by 1950 the American chestnut was virtually extinct. Passenger pigeons once numbered in the billions, now exist only in museums. The rapidly growing list of endangered and extinct species has been ranked as one of the planet's gravest environmental worries, surpassing pollution, global warming and the thinning of the ozone layer.

The importance of a Ladybug Beetle keeping "bad company"

Of the 111 studies included in the biodiversity analysis, one particularly interesting experiment shows the critical importance of the ladybug beetle – part of a synergistic "team" of three aphid predators. This study presented evidence that together, a specific group of predators (the ladybug, the damsel bug, and the parasitic wasp), can reduce the density of aphids, in turn increasing the yield of alfalfa, an economically important crop. This study was performed in Wisconsin and showed that all three natural enemies together reduce the aphids to a greater extent than is predicted from each natural enemy alone. He explained that this service, provided by species diversity, is worth millions of dollars for agriculture in Wisconsin alone, not including the fact that the farmers do not have to spray their alfalfa crops when the three key predator species abound.

All about endangered species?

An endangered species is any animal or plant species whose very survival is threatened to the point of extinction. Once extinct, a species is no longer found anywhere on Earth and there is no chance of its revival. The extinction of species is not a new phenomenon. Natural extinction of species has been occuring since life started on earth. But it is the rapid extinction which is a cause of concern.

Due to destructive human activity, the diversity of all life on earth has decreased by over 30% in the past thirty-five years [1]. Species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. While species have evolved and become extinct on a regular basis for the last several hundred million years, the number of species becoming extinct since the Industrial Revolution has no precedent in biological history. If this rate of extinction continues, or accelerates as now seems to be the case, the number of species becoming extinct in the next decade could number in the millions.

The four steps in the journey of a species.

  1. Vulnerable species - A species particularly at risk because of low or declining numbers or small range, but not a threatened species.
  2. Threatened species – a species whose population is not yet low enough to be in immediate danger of extinction, but who certainly faces serious problems. If the problems affecting these species aren’t resolved, it is probable that the species will become endangered. The eastern indigo snake and the red kangaroo are examples of threatened species.
  3. Endangered species – a specie, plant or animal, that is in immediate danger of becoming extinct. Its numbers are usually low, and it needs protection in order to survive. The Siberian tiger, the southern sea otter, the snow leopard, the green pitcher plant, and thousands of other plants and animals are endangered worldwide.
  4. Extinct species – an extinct species is one that is no longer living. The passenger pigeon, the dodo, and the Stegosaurus are examples of extinct species. These animals no longer exist on the earth.

Causes of endangerment

Endangerment is a broad issue, one that involves the habitats and environments where species live and interact with one another. Natural changes tend to occur at a gradual pace, usually causing only a slight impact on individual species. However, when changes occur at a fast pace, there is little or no time for individual species to react and adjust to new circumstances. This can create disastrous results.

Habitat Destruction

Rapid habitat loss is the primary cause of species becoming endangered. The burgeoning human population has cleared forests to live and farm. While activities such as hunting, over-fishing, cutting trees and clearing forests have had a direct impact on biodiversity of the planet, pollution, global warming, release of greenhouse gases have had a damaging impact on hubs of biodiversity such as the coral reefs. Clearing of rainforests has resulted in loss of microbes in soils that formerly supported tropical forests.

Introduction of Exotic Species

Native species, comprising plants and animals that inhabit a particular biological landscape for a lengthy period of time, are well adapted to their local environment and are accustomed to the presence of other native species within the same general habitat. When exotic species or non native pests, are introduced into new environments by way of human activities, either intentionally or accidentally, they sometimes prey on the native species. Species have been introduced to environments all over the world, and the most destructive effects have occurred on islands.


Due to the trade in animal parts, many species continue to suffer high rates of exploitation. Unrestricted whaling during the 20th century is an example of overexploitation, and the whaling industry brought many species of whales to extremely low population sizes. Even today, there are demands for items such as rhino horns and tiger bones in several areas of Asia. The demand for ivory had led to indiscriminate poaching and endangered elephant population in several parts of the world.

Other factors

If a species does not have the natural genetic protection against particular pathogens, an introduced disease can have severe effects on its local population. Domestic animals often transmit the diseases that affect wild populations -- and here again human activities are the root cause of this.

Endangered species and health

40% of the prescribed medicines are made from the natural compounds of different species. The Pacific yew, a slow-growing tree found in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, had been dismissed as a useless tree for a long time. Its bark taxol has recently been found to have compounds that could treat ovarian cancer and breast cancer.

Endangered species and environment

Agricultural -- There are an estimated 80,000 edible plants in the world. Though humans depend upon only 20 species of these plants, such as wheat and corn, to provide 90% of the world's food, wild relatives of these common crops contain essential disease-resistant material. They also provide humans with the means to develop new crops that can grow in inadequate lands such as in poor soils or drought-stricken areas to help solve the world hunger problem.

Ecological -- Plant and animal species are the foundation of healthy ecosystems. These ecosystems purify air, clean water, and supply food. When species become endangered, it is an indicator that the health of these vital ecosystems is beginning to unravel. The northern spotted owl, listed as threatened in 1990, is an indicator of the declining health of the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest. Pollution off the coast of Florida is killing the coral reefs along the Florida Keys, which serve as habitat for hundreds of species of fish.

Commercial -- Various wild species are commercially raised, directly contributing to local and regional economies. Commercial and recreational salmon fishing in the Pacific Northwest provides 60,000 jobs and $1 billion annually in personal income, and is the center of Pacific Northwest Native American culture. Freshwater mussels which are harvested, cut into beads, and used to stimulate pearl construction in oysters form the basis of a thriving industry which supports approximately 10,000 U.S. jobs and contributes over $700 million to the U.S. economy annually. Unfortunately, 43% of the freshwater mussel species in North America are currently endangered or extinct.

Aesthetic/Recreational -- Plant and animal species and also supply recreational, spiritual, and quality-of-life values as well. Each year over 108 million people in the United States participate in wildlife-related recreation including observing, feeding, and photographing wildlife.

90 degrees

Keystone species

While most people readily relate to endangerment of large mammals or birdlife, some of the greatest ecological issues are the threats to stability of whole ecosystems if key species vanish at any level of the food chain. Referred to as "keystone species", the extinction of one such species in a community cause the loss of many others.

Two hallmarks of keystone species

  1. Their presence is crucial in maintaining the organization and diversity of their ecological communities.
  2. These species are exceptional, relative to the rest of the community, in their importance.

Biologists advocate that key or keystone species be special targets in the efforts to maximize biodiversity protection.

The gray wolf is an example of keystone species. When the wolves population in the Yellowstone National Park started dwindling, the population of elks ( which the wolves had been controlling till then increased manifolds. These elks fed on the willows, aspen, and other trees that grew along streams.

The restoration of the wolves had a positive impact on the trees which cooled the stream, thereby benefiting the native trout, and increases nesting habitat for migratory birds. Beavers also got willow branches to eat, and beaver dams create marshland habitat for otters, mink, and ducks. The restoration of the wolves also benefitted the threatened grizzly bear, since grizzlies found it easier to take over a wolf kill than to bring down their own elk.

Laws that protect endangered species

  • The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act makes it illegal to import, export, or take bald or golden eagles.
  • The Lacey Act prohibits the import, export and sale of illegally acquired fish and wildlife.
  • The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the import, export and sale of marine mammals and defines Federal responsibility for conservation of marine mammals.
  • Airborne Hunting Act prohibits shooting or harassing wildlife from aircraft.
  • The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 provides for the protection and conservation of fish and wildlife that are threatened
  • Endangered Species Act prohibits the import, export and sale of fis, wildlife, and plants listed as threatened or endangered species.
  • The Antarctic Conservation Act provides for the conservation and protection of the fauna and flora of Antarctica and of the ecosystem upon which such fauna and flora depend.
  • The African Elephant Conservation Act provides additional protection for the African elephant.
  • The Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 promotes the conservation of exotic birds by encouraging wild bird conservation and management programs in countries of origin.

What can I do?

Steps to protect species

Many countries have laws offering special protection to these species or their habitats: for example, forbidding hunting, restricting land development or creating preserves. However, only few of the many endangered species actually make it to the official protection list. Many such species have disappeared without coming to the public eye. But the need of the hour is to practice environmental ethics, at both micro and macro level.


  • According to scientists, more than one and one-half million species exist on the earth today. However, recent estimates state that at least 20 times that many species inhabit the planet.
  • Lemurs are an endangered species of primates found only on the African island of Madagascar and in zoos.
  • In the United States, 735 species of plants and 496 species of animals are listed as threatened or endangered.
  • Only 5% of known plant species have been screened for their medicinal values, although we continue to lose up to 100 species daily.
  • There are more than 1,000 animal species endangered worldwide.
  • There are more than 3,500 protected areas in existence worldwide. These areas include parks, wildlife refuges and other reserves. They cover a total of nearly 2 million square miles (5 million square km), or 3% of our total land area.
  • Aquatic species, which are often overlooked, are facing serious trouble. One third of the United States’ fish species, two-thirds of its crayfish species, and almost three-quarters of its mussel species are in trouble.


  • Endangered Species
  • Endangered animals
  • The American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation
  • Why save endangered species?
  • Keystone species


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