Natural heritage disappearing
Assessments of some 6,000 species of Europe’s native fauna and flora have been carried out for the European Red List, part of the global IUCN Red List, to determine their conservation status and uncover current threats to their existence. The results show an alarming decline in Europe’s natural heritage, with a large proportion of molluscs, freshwater fish and amphibians believed to be threatened with extinction.
IUCN’s latest report reveals that 44% of all European freshwater mollusc species are now under threat, as well as 37% of freshwater fish, 23% of amphibians, 19% of reptiles, 15% of mammals and dragonflies, 13% of birds and 9% of butterflies. Although assessments of entire vascular plant families have not been conducted, of the 1,805 species assessed within this group, just over 25% were found to be under threat.
Selections of terrestrial molluscs and saproxylic beetles were also assessed, with 20% and 11% being classified in threatened categories on the European Red List respectively.
Human well-being at risk
The loss of biodiversity is a concern which affects everybody, as Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment, explains, “The well-being of people in Europe and all over the world depends on goods and services that nature provides. If we don’t address the reasons behind this decline and act urgently to stop it, we could pay a very heavy price indeed.”
Millions of people rely on freshwater fish for livelihoods and as a primary source of food, yet within Europe this species group is highly threatened, with pollution, overfishing, habitat loss and the introduction of alien species being the main causes for the declines. The news is particularly bad for sturgeons, with all but one of the eight European species now classified as Critically Endangered.
Despite being vital for food security, wild relatives of crop plants are frequently neglected in terms of conservation action. Wild relatives of economically important European crops such as sugar beet, wheat, oat and lettuce, were included as part of the vascular plant assessments, and showed a concerning level of threat. One such species is the Critically Endangered Beta patula, an important gene source for enhancing virus resistance in its close relative, the cultivated beet.
Molluscs in trouble
Freshwater molluscs were found to be the most threatened group of species within Europe so far. Once widespread, Spengler’s freshwater mussel (Margaritifera auricularia) is now restricted to just a handful of rivers in France and Spain, and was considered to be nearly extinct in the 1980s. This Critically Endangered species is one of two for which a European-level Action Plan has been designed, and it is hoped that current conservation programmes targeting the mollusc will prove fruitful.
“The figures confirm the worrying condition of European molluscs,” says Annabelle Cuttelod, IUCN Coordinator of the European Red List. “When combined with the high level of threats faced by freshwater fish and amphibians, we can see that the European freshwater ecosystems are really under serious threats that require urgent conservation action.”
Not all bad news
The latest IUCN results paint a grave picture of the status of Europe’s fauna and flora, but the assessments also provide some good news and highlight the success of well-designed conservation measures. Many species which are formally protected under the EU Habitats Directive, as well as those included in the Natura 2000 network of protected areas, are now attributed with an improved chance of survival.
As a result of strict protection of its only known site of occurrence, the centranthe à trois nervures, a plant endemic to Corsica, has been downlisted from Critically Endangered to Endangered. In addition, over the last decade the control of invasive species, including goats, rats and plants, has benefited the majority of threatened land snails in Madeira.
“These are encouraging signs that show the benefits of conservation actions supported by strong policy,” says Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Director, IUCN Global Species Programme. “Continued implementation of the current European legislation combined with new conservation programmes is essential to preserve these important native species and their habitats.”
Explore more threatened species on ARKive.
Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author