The Sixth Major Mass Extinction

According to current research, there have been at least five major mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth: Periods in which a strikingly large number of species disappeared in a relatively short period of time. The best-known mass extinction is probably the demise of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. At that time, a giant comet probably struck North America, perhaps combined with strong volcanic activity. 75 percent of all animal and plant species fell victim to this environmental catastrophe.

The sixth major mass extinction is currently happening before our eyes, according to many experts. In May 2019, the World Biodiversity Council IPBES published its Global Report, according to which one million species are acutely threatened within the next decades. The extinction rate – the proportion of plant and animal species that disappear from the earth each year – is currently tens to hundreds of times higher than it has been on average over the past 10 million years. Without decisive countermeasures by mankind, this development is likely to accelerate even further.

Decline at a Rapid Pace

Compared to previous mass extinctions, which could take place over periods of several thousand years, the current loss of species is occurring at breakneck speed. According to the Living Planet Index (LPI), there was an estimated 65 percent decline in global biodiversity between 1970 and 2010 alone, in just 40 years – a vanishingly short period by geological standards.

While earlier events of this kind were of natural origin, the current extinction of species is, according to science, due to human activities: The natural habitat of many species continues to shrink, and natural areas are converted into residential or arable land. Larger vertebrates are hunted and poached. Humans are introducing environmental toxins into nature, and through their global mobility, they are increasingly unintentionally spreading alien species into areas where they are not originally native. The newcomers can become dangerous to existing species and sometimes displace them.

Climate Change Accelerates Extinction

There were similarities to the earlier mass extinctions in the history of the Earth. But now, climate change plays an important role in mass extinction. While in the Permian or Cretaceous periods, it was the eruptions of supervolcanoes or meteorite impacts that led to rapid climate change, today the use of fossil fuels and the destruction of rainforests fuel the greenhouse effect. If the climate changes faster than evolution can keep up, all species that are not sufficiently adapted to the new climatic conditions will become extinct. This process also drives the currently observed loss of biodiversity.

Major international efforts are needed to reduce these harmful human impacts on nature. In some cases, there is still a lack of scientific knowledge about which species are particularly endangered and how the different causes of species loss interact with each other. This is where the research initiative for the conservation of biodiversity (FEdA) comes in. On this website, you can read more about the background of the initiative, our approach, and the funded scientific projects.