Lack of Data May Be Hiding True Extent of Biodiversity Loss

Killer whales, one of thousands of "data deficient" species.

Killer whales, one of thousands of "data deficient" species. Robert Pitman / NOAA

The number of species facing extinction may be much higher than previously thought, according to a new study.

While scientists have surveyed the risks facing more than 147,000 plants and animals to determine which belong on the list of threatened or endangered species maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, thousands more species are not assessed at all because of a lack of data on threats they might be facing. In some cases, scientists have yet to track these species in the field, but in others the lack of data may reflect their already precipitous decline, the new study suggests.

The paper’s authors mapped patterns of extinction among species for which ample data exists, creating a model that accounted for the impact of climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, and other risks. They then applied their model to 7,699 “data deficient” species, finding that 56 percent are facing conditions that have likely left them threatened with extinction. The results were published in the journal Communications Biology.

The “data deficient” species are roughly twice as likely as “data-sufficient” species to be at risk of extinction. Among the “data deficient” creatures are killer whales, pink fairy armadillos, and nearly 200 species of bats. “Data deficient” amphibians are the most imperiled, according to the study, which found that 85 percent are likely threatened with extinction.

The study authors said that models like theirs could be useful in identifying species most in need of protection. “These new machine-learning technologies would not replace experts but would assist in guiding and allocating resources,” Jan Borgelt, a doctoral candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and lead author of the study, told Scientific American. “Some species groups are really much more urgent than others.”


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