The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, calculates that flora and fauna are dwindling one-thousand times faster than they did before the rise of humanity.
This is ten times faster than biologists previously believed, says the study’s lead author Stuart Pimm, a biologist at Duke University. “We are on the verge of the sixth extinction,” he explains. “Whether we avoid it or not will depend on our actions.”
Prior to modern history, there have been five mass extinction events on Earth. In each of these events, at least half of all known species were wiped out completely – the most famous of which occurred 66 million years ago. The K-T, or Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction, brought an end to the age of the dinosaurs. But the most devastating extinction occurred at the end of the Permian period, about 252.2 million years ago. Known as “The Great Dying,” it wiped out 90 percent of all marine and terrestrial species.
Greater and lesser extinctions can be found throughout the geologic record, with their causes not always so clear. Increased volcanism, global warming, asteroid impacts and microbes all factor into the theories. But today’s modern extinction has just one culprit: Us.
Pimm’s study points to habitat loss as the prime cause of species die-off. For example, the Buffy-Tufted Marmoset, native to the Brazilian rainforest, has been brought into losing competition with another species of marmoset due to deforestation. Today it is on the international vulnerable list. Invasive species, climate change and overfishing are also shrinking plant and animal species worldwide.
Marine biologist Boris Worm, who studies white-tip sharks, has watched the species hunted to a fraction of its previous population. “If we don’t do anything,” he says, “this will go the way of the dinosaurs.”