What we need to know to prevent a mass extinction of plant species

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Human actions are driving plant species to extinction at rates a hundred to a thousand times faster than normal. To prevent extinctions, it would be helpful to have a more comprehensive taxonomic catalogue and much greater knowledge of where plant species live. Addressing these questions must be a scientific priority. However, what we know at present is enough to effect practical conservation actions, such as protecting more land in biodiverse places, reconnecting fragmented habitats, and eliminating species introduced outside their native ranges. For the benefit of people and the planet, we can, and must act on what we know already, to prevent catastrophic plant extinctions. Summary: Continuing destruction of habitats—and especially tropical forests—the introduction of plant and herbivorous animal species outside their native ranges, and global climate disruption all contribute to the extinction of plant species. What can we do to prevent this? Do we have enough basic information to make effective conservation decisions? First, how many plant species are there? This question has an easy element—how many species we know now—and a much more difficult one—how many do we not know. Second, where are the concentrations of plant species? Third, where are the species we do not yet know? Fourth, what plant species have gone extinct, and where did they live? A related question is which species are threatened with extinction and where do they live? Fifth, how well can we map threats to species? For habitat loss, remote sensing provides satellite images globally and very frequently. It does so at a resolution that often displays individual trees and bushes. Sixth, supposing we had detailed answers to the previous questions, what are we doing to protect species? How well does the existing network of protected areas encompass species, especially those with the smallest ranges? Does that network allow for species moving upslope as the climate heats up? How well are managers doing in removing introduced species? Although answering these questions must be a scientific priority, we cannot wait until we have all the answers. We can, and indeed must, act on what we know already.






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Pimm, SL (2021). What we need to know to prevent a mass extinction of plant species. Plants People Planet, 3(1). pp. 7–15. 10.1002/ppp3.10160 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/23512.

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Stuart L. Pimm

Doris Duke Distinguished Professor of Conservation Ecology in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences

Stuart Pimm is a world leader in the study of present-day extinctions and what can be done to prevent them. His research covers the reasons why species become extinct, how fast they do so, the global patterns of habitat loss and species extinction and, importantly, the management consequences of this research. Pimm received his BSc degree from Oxford University in 1971 and his Ph.D. from New Mexico State University in 1974. Pimm is the author of over 350 scientific papers and five books. He is one of the most highly cited environmental scientists. Pimm wrote the highly acclaimed assessment of the human impact to the planet: The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth in 2001. His commitment to the interface between science and policy has led to his testimony to both House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. He was worked and taught in Africa for nearly 30 years on elephants, most recently lions — through National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative — but always on topics that relate to the conservation of wildlife and the ecosystems on which they depend. Other research areas include the Everglades of Florida and tropical forests in South America, especially the Atlantic Coast forest of Brazil and the northern Andes — two of the world's "hotspots" for threatened species. His international honours include the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (2010), the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006), the Society for Conservation Biology’s Edward T. LaRoe III Memorial Award (2006), and the Marsh Award for Conservation Biology, from the Marsh Christian Trust (awarded by the Zoological Society of London in 2004). Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, awarded him the William Proctor Prize for Scientific Achievement in 2007. In 2019, he won the International Cosmos Prize, which recognised his founding and directing Saving Nature, www.savingnature.org, a non-profit that uses donations for carbon emissions offsets to fund local conservation groups in areas of exceptional tropical biodiversity to restore their degraded lands. 

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