Whether it's been in a high school biology class or while watching the news, you've probably heard the word "extinct."
"So what?" you might ask yourself. How could the loss of a random insect or plant be such a big deal?
We often discuss the importance of protecting endangered species but never talk about why it's so important. And, as rates of mammal extinction are increasing 1600-fold (and threatening to increase further), there's no better time to educate ourselves on the impact of extinction.
The Domino Effect
Every species on our planet is connected in an intricate web of life. Just as we may rely on plants like lettuce and broccoli for food, all organisms depend on other living things to survive.
If one organism is removed from a population, it will affect the way of life for others in the environment and the ecosystem itself.
An example of this is the loss and reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park. By 1930, gray wolves were over-hunted to a point near extinction. This led to a surge in the numbers of elk and deer they preyed on.
With larger populations of these animals, they overgrazed on and subsequently destroyed plant life around the streams in the area. As a result, the streams eroded and the animals that depended on them for food and shelter declined.
In short, the entire ecosystem transformed.
As gray wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995, the ecosystem returned to its previous state, with an abundance of plant and animal life.
While this is just one example, its effects can be applied to almost every other species on Earth. This is especially true for species that have unique functions in the ecosystem, not necessarily just those at the top of the food chain ("apex species").
For instance, take a look at elephants. Elephants contribute to their ecosystems by dispersing seeds through consumption and digestion, leading to plant and tree growth that other animals use for shelter. They dig water holes that other animals share. They also fertilize the soil with their nutrient-rich excrement.
As elephants near extinction, the environment around them is drastically changing. By just removing one species from the habitat, the entire ecosystem is put in danger.
As species extinctions disrupt healthy ecosystems, they can also play a large part in driving crises like wildfires, pandemics, and droughts.
In the 1800s, a virus brought wildebeest and buffalo to the brink of extinction in East Africa. With fewer plant-eaters, vegetation grew into an overabundance and triggered an increase in wildfires.
Although you may not think about it, our ecosystems do a lot for us. Ecosystem services are described as any positive benefits that wildlife and ecosystems offer to humans.
There are four types of ecosystem services:
- Provisioning Services: resources that can be extracted from nature (i.e., wood, food, fuel, water)
- Regulating Services: benefits from the regulation of ecosystem processes (i.e., clean air, purified water, pest control, climate regulation)
- Cultural Services: ways that our ecosystem contributes to our local, national, and global cultures (i.e., paintings on cave walls, national animal and plant species, recreation)
- Supporting services: services that sustain our ecosystems (i.e., the water cycle, photosynthesis, the nutrient cycle)
When extinction disrupts the ecosystem, it can also lead to major reductions in our ecosystem services. This may mean clean water can become contaminated, food resources may decline, carbon levels rise, etc.
As reported in a study for the U.N., the loss in biodiversity could result in a loss of 18% of global economic output by 2050.
These economic impacts can already be seen spanning across many industries, most prominently in those that center around agriculture.
For instance, the collapse in bee colonies in 1947 and 2005 has significantly reduced honeybee populations, putting that honey industry at risk. Furthermore, many species that are critical to our food systems, like pollinators, are in decline, which could have major implications. The loss in biodiversity also makes crops more susceptible to disease outbreaks and climate change.
In addition, one economic sector that could be majorly impacted is the tourism and recreation industry. According to the U.S. Park Service, U.S. National Parks have over 200 million visitors each year. These visitors also contribute to local economies during their trips.
By preserving our ecosystems, we protect this essential economic sector.
Plants and other organisms have historically been studied and utilized to treat ailments and diseases. With scientific advancements, the medical R&D community comes closer every day to identifying ways different plants and organisms can be used.
With the rate of extinction increasing for many vulnerable species, possible answers to unlocking treatments and cures to the most vexing diseases could be lost forever.
It is essential that we protect our biodiversity in plants and organisms, as they could potentially provide massive medical benefits that are currently unknown.
What You Can Do to Help
The modern major causes of extinction include overconsumption/exploitation (such as hunting), population growth, pollution, climate change, the introduction of invasive species (such as predators), and habitat loss (mainly deforestation).
While it is nearly impossible for one individual to solve any of these problems, there are many efforts you can take to contribute.
The most effective actions for reducing extinction rates are through large-scale governmental and corporate policy. These "top-down" approaches will allow change to be made more efficiently and on an extensive scale.
To do your part in encouraging these policies, you can elect officials with agendas that align with biodiversity protection, bolstering the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and slowing climate change. You can also support non-profits and corporations that focus their efforts on supporting endangered species and conserving the environment.
You can also support "bottom-up" policies by mobilizing your community to take part in actions to protect endangered species. Examples include eating less meat and avoiding foods that contribute largely to deforestation (such as soybeans), reducing your use of plastic, and composting food waste.
Remember: any contribution is a good contribution, no matter how big or small!
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