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  • Writer's pictureGregory Andrews

Mutilating the Tree of Life

Previous mass extinctions have all been caused by natural processes like asteroid impacts or volcanic eruptions. But the current sixth mass extinction event on Earth is being driven by us. Homosapiens. And it's not just causing the loss of individual species. Whole branches and limbs of the Tree of Life are falling off - entire collections of species, genera, families, and more.

I know that like many people, I'm suffering from ecological grief. More than three-quarters of wild animals on Earth have disappeared in my lifetime. But it is not just an emotional or mental health concern for Indigenous peoples and conservationists. The extinction crisis a threat to human civilisation itself. It is altering the trajectory of evolution on a global scale, impacting ecosystem services that biodiversity provides, and jeopardising conditions necessary for human life on Earth. That's why immediate, decisive action is imperative.

The Alarming Statistics

A recent study by scientists from Stanford University and the National University Mexico reveals that 73 genera have become extinct since 1500 AD. Genera are a higher taxonomic rank than species. They are categories that group together multiple species that are related evolutionarily and share certain common characteristics. They are the limbs and branches of the Tree of Life, not its leaves or twigs. There can be thousands of species in one genera. Current extinction rates for genera are a staggering 35 times higher than expected background rates in the absence of human impacts. Genera that have vanished in the last five centuries would normally have taken around 18,000 years to disappear.

Looking ahead, the situation is even more dire. If all currently endangered genera were to vanish by 2100, extinction rates would skyrocket to 354 times higher than background rates. For mammals, this figure would be a staggering 511 times higher. Such unprecedented rates of extinction could lead to losses that would otherwise take over 100,000 years.

To be conservative in its assessment, the paper focuses on monotypic genera, those with only one species. Of the 1,830 monotypic genera examined, 20% are already endangered. These encompass a wide range of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. The loss of any one of these genera is significant. It can have far-reaching consequences for the Tree of Life and the ecosystems it supports.

The Urgency of Action

The paper's findings underscore the urgent need for action to protect biodiversity. It is not just about preserving charismatic species; it's about safeguarding the very foundation of life on Earth. So what can we do? Here are some of my key recommendations:

1. Habitat Protection and Restoration: Protecting and restoring natural habitats is crucial. Governments and organisations must work together to stop land clearing and native forest logging, designate and enforce protected areas, and safeguard ecosystems that are home to endangered species.

2. Address Climate Change: Climate disruption is turbo charging the extinction crisis. Nations, corporations and individuals must prioritise reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to sustainable energy sources to mitigate the impacts of climate change. That means ending fossil-fuel subsidies; and for countries like Australia, urgently phasing out fossil fuel exports.

3. Combat Illegal Trade: Illegal wildlife trade is a major driver of extinction in Asia and Africa. Strict enforcement and penalties for poaching and trafficking are essential. International cooperation is necessary. Australia can play its part by strict policing.

4. Education and Public Awareness: Public awareness and education are critical for conservation success. Most people know more about Kim Kardashian than they do of Australia's unique marsupials at risk of extinction. Governments, NGOs and communities should invest in campaigns to raise awareness about the importance of biodiversity.

5. Scientific Research: Funding for scientific research on endangered species and ecosystems should be increased. And even more importantly, politicians and officials needs to start listening to scientists and Indigenous knowledge holders rather than blowing them off. Research is vital for understanding the needs of species on the brink and developing effective conservation strategies. But it also need to be heeded.

6. International Collaboration: The global nature of the extinction crisis requires international cooperation. Nations must work together to set, achieve and enforce ambitious conservation goals.

7. Policy Integration: Conservation efforts should be integrated into broader policy frameworks, including those related to sustainable development, agriculture, and urban planning. We can't keep chopping down endangered species habitat for housing estates or native forests for wood-chips and toilet paper!

The paper "Mutilation of the Tree of Life via Mass Extinction of Animal Genera" is a wake-up call. It reminds us that the futures of biodiversity and Homo sapiens are deeply intertwined. The choices we make now will determine whether we continue to share this planet with a rich tapestry of life or witness its irreversible destruction.

Urgency for action cannot be overstated. We must act swiftly and decisively to protect Nature. It's not just a matter of preserving individual species; it's about safeguarding the web of life. If we fail to act, the consequences for civilisation and the stability of our planet will be dire. The time to act is now, while there is still a rapidly closing window of opportunity to halt the sixth mass extinction and ensure a future for all.

I was enchanted with this Boab tree that I found in the Kimberley in 2017.

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