A group of scientists has just published a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that details the impact that humans have had on mammalspecies since the appearance of humans on the evolutionary scene.
The Earth is undergoing a mass extinction, which is caused by human activity that destroys habitats and kills off species.
From the rise of modern humans to the year 1500,2bn years of evolutionary history was lost due to mammal extinctions, the researchers calculated. There are only 50 years old, and mass extinction will reach its peak and to restore the biodiversity of the planet will take from 3 to 5 billion years.
We're now living through Earth's sixth mass extinction - but this time, species aren't being wiped out by an asteroid or other natural disasters, it's us.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature predicts that 99.9 percent of critically endangered species and 67 percent of endangered species will be lost within the next 100 years.
Evolution is the planet's defense mechanism against the loss of biodiversity. But, they happened naturally, and evolution was always there to develop new, unique species.
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.
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They then used powerful computers, advanced evolutionary simulations and comprehensive data about evolutionary relationships and body sizes of existing and extinct mammals.
The team considered a few scenarios: mammals start to recover immediately - a situation that would require a dramatic change to conservation norms-or after 20, 50 or 100 years of current conservation efforts.
"There are hundreds of species of shrew, so they can weather a few extinctions". So when they all went extinct, many years of evolutionary history disappeared with them. According to the researchers, the disappearance of one species can have different consequences for biodiversity: for example, the death of one dog is not much affected even in this family, but the death of the South American macrauchenia, exotic ungulates, closes the whole window of opportunities for further evolution and a potential branch on the "tree" of mammals.
The degree of biodiversity loss over the next five decades will be significantly influenced by the changes to current human behaviors, or lack thereof-but the impact of losing species can vary greatly. That's not the case for some megafauna species such as giant sloths and sabre-toothed tigers, which used to be highly evolutionary distinct and went extinct 10,000 years ago, with humans playing a major role. The upcoming sixth mass extinction, however, is largely the work of humans.
Asian elephants, one of only two surviving species of a once mighty mammalian order that included mammoths and mastodons, have less than a 33 per cent chance of surviving past this century.
"Although we once lived in a world of giants: giant beavers, giant armadillos, giant deer, etc., we now live in a world that is becoming increasingly impoverished of large wild mammalian species", Jens-Christian Svenning, a professor in the Department of Bioscience at Aarhus University and co-author of the study, said in a statement.
"The few remaining giants, such as rhinos and elephants, are in danger of being wiped out very rapidly".
Fortunately, the study's findings and data are useful in identifying endangered and evolutionary distinct species, which will help us determine the more critical extinctions we should concentrate on preventing.
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