Mammals become extinct much faster than they diversify

Humans have helped propel the extinction of more than 300 mammal species- More

After all of those millennia of evolution, it took barely 100,000 years for one relatively young member of the group - humans - to bring everything crashing down.

Given the current rate at which humans are exterminating animal and plant species, researchers at the Aarhus University and the University of Gothenburg calculated how long would it take for biodiversity to recover.

Humans have helped propel the extinction of more than 300 mammal species - equaling a staggering loss of 2.5 billion years' worth of unique evolutionary history, according to a grim new study published Monday.

There have been five upheavals over the past 450 million years when the environment has changed so dramatically that the majority of Earth's plant and animal species became extinct.

The scientists concluded that in a best-case scenario, nature will need 3-5 million years to get back to the level of biodiversity we have on Earth today. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that 99% of critically endangered species and 67% of endangered species will die out within the next 100 years. As habitats and climates change, species that can't survive die, and new species slowly emerge. In those cases, evolution allowed new species to replace those that were lost.

For their calculations, the Aarhus University researchers used a database containing existing mammal species and mammals that already went extinct as humans spread across the planet. Experts have combined these data with information about the extinctions that will occur in the next 50 years, and used advanced simulation of evolution to predict how long it will take for the species recovery.

Even during the last glacial period (left) on Earth there was a great variety of large mammals, nearly all of which our time (center) has disappeared. There are hundreds of species of shrew, so if it loses a few, the lineage still has enough members to breed biodiversity. Matt Davis, a paleontologist at Aarhus University who led the study, cited the shrew as an example.

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Davis said each lost species had its own intrinsic value, but the loss of the most distinct creatures was most damaging: "Typically, if you have something that is off by itself, it does some job that no other species is doing". This rate of extinction is increasing over the course of the last few years.

"Large mammals, or megafauna, such as giant sloths and sabre-toothed tigers, which became extinct about 10,000 years ago, were highly evolutionarily distinct", Davis said in a statement. "But saber-toothed tigers were only four kinds, and they all disappeared". Scientists now argue that we're the brink of a sixth mass extinction - but while previous events were triggered by calamities, such as massive volcanic eruptions or an asteroid impact, this time the vector is a single species: Homo sapiens.

For the study, Davis and his colleagues focused not just on the number of species that have gone extinct but also on how much evolutionary history they represent (or the amount of time each species had spent evolving before it was wiped out). The probability of extinction of the Asian elephant (one of only two species extant) till the end of the XXI century is estimated at 33%.

Large mammal species, the researchers warn, are disproportionately at risk of dying out altogether.

'It is much easier to save biodiversity now than to re-evolve it later, ' Davis says.

"The few remaining giants, such as rhinos and elephants, are in danger of being wiped out very rapidly", he continued.

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