Climate change is one of the main drivers of species loss globally. We know more plants and animals will die as heatwaves, bushfires, droughts and other natural disasters worsen.
But to date, science has vastly underestimated the true toll climate change and habitat destruction will have on biodiversity. That’s because it has largely neglected to consider the extent of “co-extinctions”: when species go extinct because other species on which they depend die out.
Our new research shows 10% of land animals could disappear from particular geographic areas by 2050, and almost 30% by 2100. This is more than double previous predictions. It means children born today who live to their 70s will witness literally thousands of animals disappear in their lifetime, from lizards and frogs to iconic mammals such as elephants and koalas.
But if we manage to dramatically reduce carbon emissions globally, we could save thousands of species from local extinction this century alone.
An extinction crisis unfolding
Every species depends on others in some way. So when a species dies out, the repercussions can ripple through an ecosystem.
For example, consider what happens when a species goes extinct due to a disturbance such as habitat loss. This is known as a “primary” extinction. It can then mean a predator loses its prey, a parasite loses its host or a flowering plant loses its pollinators.
A real-life example of a co-extinction that could occur soon is the potential loss of the critically endangered mountain pygmy possum (Burramys parvus) in Australia. Drought, habitat loss, and other pressures have caused the rapid decline of its primary prey, the bogong moth (Agrotis infusa).
But until now, scientists have not been able to interconnect species at a global scale to estimate how many co-extinctions will occur under projected climate and land-use change. Our research aimed to close that information gap.