Endangered Species, plant and animal species that are in danger of extinction (dying out). Over 8,300 plant species and 7,200 animal species around the globe are threatened with extinction, and many thousands more become extinct each year before biologists can identify them. The primary causes of species extinction or endangerment are habitat destruction, commercial exploitation (such as plant collecting, hunting, and trade in animal parts), damage caused by nonnative plants and animals introduced into an area, and pollution. Of these causes, direct habitat destruction threatens the greatest number of species. *****
Species become extinct or endangered for a number of reasons, but the primary cause is the destruction of habitat by human activities (see Environment). As species evolve, most adapt to a specific habitat or environment that best meets their survival needs. Without this habitat the species may not survive. Pollution, drainage of wetlands, conversion of shrub lands to grazing lands, cutting and clearing of forests, urbanization and suburbanization, climate change due to global warming, and road and dam construction have destroyed or seriously damaged and fragmented available habitats. *****
Pollution is another important cause of extinction. Toxic chemicals—especially chlorinated hydrocarbons, such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—have become concentrated in food webs, the interconnected food chains that circulate energy through an ecosystem. These toxic chemicals strongly affect species near the top of the food chain. Both DDT and PCBs interfere with the calcium metabolism of birds, causing soft-shelled eggs and malformed young. PCBs also impair reproduction in some carnivorous animals. Water pollution and increased water temperatures have wiped out endemic species of fish in many habitats. Oil spills destroy birds, fish, and mammals, and may contaminate the ocean floor for many years after the event. Acid rain, the toxic result of extreme air pollution, has been known to kill organisms in freshwater lakes and destroy large tracts of forested land. *****
Reed F. Noss, B.S., M.S., Ph.D.
Research Associate, Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University. Courtesy Associate Professor, Fisheries and Wildlife Department, Oregon State University. Editor of Conservation Biology.
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