The latest update to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species highlights a worrying decline in many economically and medicinally valuable species, from small freshwater shrimps and cone snails to gargantuan conifers, some of the world’s oldest and largest organisms.
An impressive 4,807 species have been added to the IUCN Red List this year, bringing the total number of assessed species to 70,294, of which 20,934 are threatened with extinction. With the latest figures comes the upsetting news that three species have been declared Extinct: the Cape Verde giant skink (Chioninia coctei), the Santa Cruz pupfish (Cyprinodon arcuatus) and Macrobrachium leptodactylus, a freshwater shrimp.
Concern for conifers
These figures include the first global reassessment of conifers, a plant group which holds immense economic and medicinal value. For example, softwoods are used for paper and timber production, and the anti-cancer drug Taxol is derived from the bark of many species of yew. In addition, conifers take three times more carbon out of the atmosphere than temperate and tropical forests, making them the second most important biome on Earth for tackling climate change, after wetlands.
Worryingly, IUCN’s latest update shows that 34% of the world’s cedars, cypresses, firs and other cone-bearing plants are now threatened with extinction, an increase of 4% since the last complete assessment of this group 15 years ago.
Among the 33 conifer species whose conservation status has declined since the last assessment is the Guadalupe Island pine (Pinus radiata), which has moved from Least Concern – a category used for species at relatively low extinction risk – to Endangered. The most widely planted pine, valued for its pulp qualities and rapid growth, the Guadalupe Island pine faces several threats in its natural habitat, including illegal logging, feral goats and disease.
Despite the alarming picture painted by the latest figures, there are some glimmers of hope. As a result of successful conservation action, Lawson’s cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) has changed status, moving from Vulnerable to Near Threatened. Once a heavily traded species also threatened by disease, this conifer has improved in status following the introduction of better management practices in California and Oregon, and it is thought that this species could be listed as Least Concern within ten years if conservation action continues.
“Conservation works and the results for the Lawson’s cypress are reassuring,” said Aljos Farjon, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission‘s Conifer Specialist Group. “However, this is clearly not enough. More research into the status and distribution of many species is urgently needed. We suspect that there are many new species waiting to be described but it is likely that they will never be found due to the rate of deforestation and habitat conversion for oil plantations.”
Hunting, habitat loss and suspected disease are all thought to have contributed to the decline of the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), a member of the pig family found in Central and South America. This species has declined by an alarming 89% in Costa Rica and by 84% in Mexico and Guatemala, and is now listed as Vulnerable.
Newly assessed on the IUCN Red List is the Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis), a subspecies of the narrow-ridged finless porpoise. Found only in China’s Yangtze River and two adjoining lakes, this species is one of the world’s few remaining freshwater cetaceans, and its population has been declining by more than 5% annually since the 1980s. As a result of its small population size and increasing threats, including illegal fishing, high levels of vessel traffic and pollution, the Yangtze finless porpoise has been classified as Critically Endangered.
“This latest Red List update is further evidence of our impact on the world’s threatened biodiversity,” said Richard Edwards, Chief Executive of Wildscreen, the charity behind the ARKive initiative. “Further evidence that extinction is real, and that we must all act, and act now, if we are to prevent this most tragic reality for many more of the world’s species.”
First for freshwater shrimps
The first ever global assessment of freshwater shrimps has also been completed as part of this latest update, with the results showing that 28% of this group are threatened with extinction due to the effects of pollution, habitat modification and the aquarium trade. As well as being an important part of the freshwater food web, freshwater shrimps such as the giant river prawn (Macrobrachium rosenbergii) are used for human consumption.
Another first for the IUCN Red List is the assessment of cone snails, of which 8% are at risk of extinction. These tropical invertebrates are important predators in their marine ecosystem, and in addition are extremely valuable to the medical industry, as their lethal toxins are used for the development of new pain-relieving drugs. The beautiful shells of these species have been collected for centuries and in some cases are worth thousands of dollars, although the greatest threats to cone snails are habitat loss and pollution.
“Once again, an update of the IUCN Red List provides us with some disturbing news,” said Simon Stuart, Wildscreen trustee and Chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. “However, there are instances of successes. For example, increased survey efforts in Costa Rica have uncovered new subpopulations of the Costa Rica brook frog and the green-eyed frog. Sadly, much more needs to be done as the overall trend to extinction continues in many species.”
To learn more about the latest update to the IUCN Red List, read the IUCN Red List update press release.
Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author