Friday, April 5, 2013

Measuring the Pacific extinction spasm

ResearchBlogging.orgIt is a fact that humans have caused numerous extinctions around the globe. Almost all of the large bodied mammals of North America disappeared after the arrival of humans sometime around 20,000 years ago –likely due to compounding effects of hunting and climate change.  This North American example has been controversial, largely because it constitutes a single observation. However, humans colonized the Pacific islands over a span of a couple of thousand years, between 3,500 to 700 years ago. Species extinctions followed these colonizations on each island, confirming the link between humans and extinctions. Yet how many species went extinct? This question may be relatively easily answered for large organisms since evidence of their existence is well recorded, but for small-bodied organisms like birds, this is a difficult question to answer.

In a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Richard Duncan, Alison Boyer and Tim Blackburn use sophisticated methods to estimate the true magnitude of bird (specifically nonpasserines –i.e., not perching or songbirds) extinctions on 41 Pacific islands (including islands from Hawaii, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia). Estimating the number of extinctions prior to recorded history is an extremely difficult exercise, but Duncan and colleagues use a set of statistical methods (Bayesian mark-recapture) to produce reliable estimates. The data available include a spotty fossil record, and so the researchers needed an appropriate estimate of the number of species present on islands in the past. To do this they examined the fossil record and compared it to species that are found there today. Only a subset was found in the fossil record. From this, they determined how the number of fossils found, body size of the organisms and island size affected detection probability. With these informative detection probabilities, they were able to estimate past richness and compare that to today’s richness – and the difference is the number of extinctions.

Across these 41 islands, Duncan et al. estimate that human colonization resulted in at least 983 extinctions. Nine-hundred and eighty-three species are no longer with us because of the presence of humans. Coupled with human activities elsewhere, from over-hunting, habitat destruction and the introduction of non-native species, we responsible for thousands of extinctions. For the first time in Earth’s history, a single species (us) is the direct cause for thousands of other species going extinct. A paper such as this is an important analysis, but it certainly doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves.

Duncan, R., Boyer, A., & Blackburn, T. (2013). Magnitude and variation of prehistoric bird extinctions in the Pacific Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1216511110

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