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Oceans Spared From Man-Made Extinction, For Now

There is not a lot of feel-good news to be found in the ecological sciences. Scientists did just discover a new population ofcanidsin New Guinea thought to be extinct, but too often the stories sound more like this statement from Douglas McCauley, an assistant professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

“The patterns are really quite conclusive, and have been looked at by about a dozen different scientists from a dozen different angles, and it sort of seems that on land we are conclusively the new asteroid. It is us that is causing these rates to accelerate to the point that it looks like very soon they could be as high as these mass extinctions we’ve seen historically."

In addition to driving global climate change, it seems fairly conclusive that humans are also, whether directly or indirectly, contributing to a mass extinction of other species on par with the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. But, at least for now, the oceans have been mostly spared from this effect.

“The first piece of research that we put out said ‘things are good in the oceans, but we have a lot of work to keep things good because we have this industrial revolution in the oceans that’s brewing.’ And this follow-up piece of science said ‘Wow, if we actually look at risk ratings it would not take much for us to push things close to what really would look like a mass extinction in the oceans,’ " said McCauley.

Credit McCauley, DJ, Pinsky, ML, Palumbi, SR, Estes, JA, Joyce, FH, and RR Warner. 2015. Marine defaunation: animal loss in the global oceans. Science 347: 1255641.
Timeline (log scale) comparing marine and terrestrial extinctions

In the last 514 years, 514 terrestrial species have gone extinct. One per year. But only about 15 marine species have gone extinct in the same time frame. Scientists like McCauley believe those findings bring reason to hope. Not because the oceans are immune to our influence, but because there is still time to curb the worst of those influences.

“Our footprint has pressed down onto ocean ecosystems much more slowly than it has on land,” said McCauley.

Douglas McCauley will be giving two public lectures about his work in marine ecosystems this week on the campus of Utah State University. Details are available at the Utah State University Ecology Center website.