Out of 216,000 plant species that have been described, 600 have gone extinct since Linnaeus, considered the “father of modern taxonomy”, created our modern system of classification.
Throughout prehistory, plants are known to have gone extinct through natural causes but, surprisingly, extinction for plants has happened differently to animals. Doubt remains whether plants show clear evidence of the five well-known mass extinction events that changed the course of animal evolution. We are not sure if plants suffered likewise, even across the largest, the end-Permian mass extinction. It is argued that plants are more robust to mass extinction because of their life-history traits, such as seed-dormancy, leaf-dropping, and hybridisation. Nevertheless, today plants are exceedingly vulnerable to extinction and exposed to many threats.
An important paper on this theme forms the basis for part of the latest report from Kew Botanical Gardens in London: The State of the Worlds Plants and Fungi1. Plant extinction was also the theme of a session in the recent conference at Kew2. This paper3 reviews the various factors contributing to extinction risk for plants and how this is measured.
While Kew’s 2016 State of the World’s Plants and Fungi reported estimates that 1 in 5 plants were at risk, new analyses in this year’s report show that the extinction risk is more likely to be close to 2 in 5. Accounting for under- and over-represented plant groups and geographical areas, and using better statistical approaches, the scientists estimated extinction risk more accurately.
The paper places significant emphasis on the need to continue to improve our estimates of extinction risk. Possibly the best course of action now is to ‘fast track’ risk assessments so key areas can be protected, and species can be conserved without delay. One of the methods to achieve this is AI (artificial intelligence), which could help to identify priorities for conservation assessments.
- Antonelli, A., C. Fry, R. J. Smith, M. S. J. Simmonds, P. J. Kersey, H. W. Pritchard, M. S. Abbo et al. “State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2020“.
- State of the World’s Plants and Fung 2020 Symposium article. Also viewable on YouTube.
- Nic Lughadha, E., Bachman, S.P., Leão, T.C., Forest, F., Halley, J.M., Moat, J., Acedo, C., Bacon, K.L., Brewer, R.F., Gâteblé, G. and Gonçalves, S.C., 2020. Extinction risk and threats to plants and fungi. Plants, People, Planet, 2(5), pp.389-408.. https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10146