Plants Becoming Extinct at a Rapid Rate

Plant extinction has repercussions for the whole ecosystem.
Jessica Miley

New research shows that plant extinction is happening at a rate 500 times faster than what would be expected without human interference.

Already almost 600 plant species have been lost forever in the last 250 years. The new study was conducted by researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Stockholm University.

"This study is the first time we have an overview of what plants have already become extinct, where they have disappeared from and how quickly this is happening," said Aelys Humphreys of Stockholm University.

Most people can easily name an extinct animal but may not be able to do the same, for plants.

Tropical areas hit the hardest

The comprehensive study says that 571 plant species have disappeared - twice the number of birds, mammals and amphibians recorded as extinct and a combined total of 217 species.


Many of the extinct plants have been lost from islands and tropical areas that have been heavily forested without regulation.

Among the extinct species is the Chile sandalwood, which was over forested for use in essential oils, the banded trinity plant, which spent much of its life underground, and the pink-flowered St Helena olive tree.

Plants Becoming Extinct at a Rapid Rate
Red Sandalwood tree. Source: GailHampshire/Flickr

One positive thing about the exhaustive research was the rediscovery of plants that had been thought to be extinct, such as the Chilean crocus.

Plants Becoming Extinct at a Rapid Rate
The Chilean crocus, Tecophilaea cyanocrocus. Source: Richard Wilford

Everyone needs plants

The extinction of plants has a huge knock-off effect for the rest of the ecosystem. Plant life is essential as a support system for all life on Earth. They produces the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat. The loss of plant species can adversely affect animals species too, as they rely on the plants for food, shelter, and as part of their reproductive rituals.

"Millions of other species depend on plants for their survival, humans included, so knowing which plants we are losing and from where, will feed back into conservation programmes targeting other organisms as well," Dr. Humphreys explained.

The research will hopefully help guide protective regulation and conservation efforts to ensure that no further plant life is lost.  

UN report makes situation clear

A UN report from May warns that more than a 1 million animal and plant species are under threat of becoming extinct.  The report delivered by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is a sharp call to action to halt this devastating truth. 

 “The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

"The Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” Watson continued.

“Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

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