Plants are vanishing twice as fast as animals, 500 times faster than natural rate: scientists

Twice as many plants have been driven to extinction over the past 250 years than all the birds, mammals and amphibians combined, a 30-year research project has found.

Scientists, including experts from The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, discovered that 571 species had disappeared in the wild since the middle of the 18th century. Rafael Govaerts, a Kew botanist, spent 30 years reviewing publications on plant extinctions and found the number was four times more than currently registered, with species disappearing at 500 times the natural rate.

Many have been eradicated through man-made habitat loss — such as the Hieracium hethlandiae, a small yellow flower wiped out through overgrazing by sheep and quarrying on Shetland.

“It’s very bad. We’re already past a runaway point. Every species that becomes extinct is supporting other organisms that also become extinct at the same time, and many we don’t even know about before it happens,” says Govaerts.

“If the English oak were to go extinct, there are around 400 species and animals that rely on it, so the implications are far wider than just losing one species.”

Plants underpin all life on Earth, they provide the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat, as well as making up the backbone of the world’s ecosystems

The study found the highest rates of extinction to be on islands, in the tropics and in areas with a Mediterranean climate.

The Chile sandalwood, Santalum fernandezianum, once grew in abundance on the Juan Fernandez Islands, between Chile and Easter Island, but was exploited for its aromatic properties. The last tree was photographed in 1908 on Robinson Crusoe Island.

Likewise the banded trinity was discovered in 1912 along Torrence Avenue in South Chicago but the site was destroyed just five years later and the plant was never seen again.

However, the team also found that more species were alive than had been reported extinct. Originally, more than 1,000 plants were believed to have perished forever, but when scientists looked for them, they found they were still present.

One such was the Silene tomentosa, a small white flower once widespread on Gibraltar but then thought to be extinct. However, it was discovered flourishing on paths running up the rock. The Hieracium hethlandiae of Shetland was also found to have survived in botanic gardens and botanists hope to reintroduce it into the wild.

The researchers have called on more work to record plants before they die out so they can be conserved.

“Plants underpin all life on Earth, they provide the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat, as well as making up the backbone of the world’s ecosystems — so plant extinction is bad news for all species,” said Dr. Eimear Nic Lughadha, the study’s co-author and a Kew conservation scientist.

“This new understanding of plant extinction will help us predict (and try to prevent) future extinctions of plants, as well as other organisms.”

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