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Concept: Extinction


The population extinction pulse we describe here shows, from a quantitative viewpoint, that Earth’s sixth mass extinction is more severe than perceived when looking exclusively at species extinctions. Therefore, humanity needs to address anthropogenic population extirpation and decimation immediately. That conclusion is based on analyses of the numbers and degrees of range contraction (indicative of population shrinkage and/or population extinctions according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature) using a sample of 27,600 vertebrate species, and on a more detailed analysis documenting the population extinctions between 1900 and 2015 in 177 mammal species. We find that the rate of population loss in terrestrial vertebrates is extremely high-even in “species of low concern.” In our sample, comprising nearly half of known vertebrate species, 32% (8,851/27,600) are decreasing; that is, they have decreased in population size and range. In the 177 mammals for which we have detailed data, all have lost 30% or more of their geographic ranges and more than 40% of the species have experienced severe population declines (>80% range shrinkage). Our data indicate that beyond global species extinctions Earth is experiencing a huge episode of population declines and extirpations, which will have negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization. We describe this as a “biological annihilation” to highlight the current magnitude of Earth’s ongoing sixth major extinction event.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Species, Mammal, Extinction, Dinosaur, Extinction event, Timeline of extinctions


Birds still share many traits with their dinosaur ancestors, making them the best living group to reconstruct certain aspects of non-avian theropod biology. Bipedal, digitigrade locomotion and parasagittal hindlimb movement are some of those inherited traits. Living birds, however, maintain an unusually crouched hindlimb posture and locomotion powered by knee flexion, in contrast to the inferred primitive condition of non-avian theropods: more upright posture and limb movement powered by femur retraction. Such functional differences, which are associated with a gradual, anterior shift of the centre of mass in theropods along the bird line, make the use of extant birds to study non-avian theropod locomotion problematic. Here we show that, by experimentally manipulating the location of the centre of mass in living birds, it is possible to recreate limb posture and kinematics inferred for extinct bipedal dinosaurs. Chickens raised wearing artificial tails, and consequently with more posteriorly located centre of mass, showed a more vertical orientation of the femur during standing and increased femoral displacement during locomotion. Our results support the hypothesis that gradual changes in the location of the centre of mass resulted in more crouched hindlimb postures and a shift from hip-driven to knee-driven limb movements through theropod evolution. This study suggests that, through careful experimental manipulations during the growth phase of ontogeny, extant birds can potentially be used to gain important insights into previously unexplored aspects of bipedal non-avian theropod locomotion.

Concepts: Bird, Knee, Extinction, Locomotion, Dinosaur, Theropoda, Bipedalism, Archosaur


Ticks are currently among the most prevalent blood-feeding ectoparasites, but their feeding habits and hosts in deep time have long remained speculative. Here, we report direct and indirect evidence in 99 million-year-old Cretaceous amber showing that hard ticks and ticks of the extinct new family Deinocrotonidae fed on blood from feathered dinosaurs, non-avialan or avialan excluding crown-group birds. A †Cornupalpatum burmanicum hard tick is entangled in a pennaceous feather. Two deinocrotonids described as †Deinocroton draculi gen. et sp. nov. have specialised setae from dermestid beetle larvae (hastisetae) attached to their bodies, likely indicating cohabitation in a feathered dinosaur nest. A third conspecific specimen is blood-engorged, its anatomical features suggesting that deinocrotonids fed rapidly to engorgement and had multiple gonotrophic cycles. These findings provide insight into early tick evolution and ecology, and shed light on poorly known arthropod-vertebrate interactions and potential disease transmission during the Mesozoic.

Concepts: Bird, Extinction, Dinosaur, Feathered dinosaurs, Archaeopteryx, Feather, Avialae, Microraptor


The rapid expansion of human activities threatens ocean-wide biodiversity. Numerous marine animal populations have declined, yet it remains unclear whether these trends are symptomatic of a chronic accumulation of global marine extinction risk. We present the first systematic analysis of threat for a globally distributed lineage of 1,041 chondrichthyan fishes-sharks, rays, and chimaeras. We estimate that one-quarter are threatened according to IUCN Red List criteria due to overfishing (targeted and incidental). Large-bodied, shallow-water species are at greatest risk and five out of the seven most threatened families are rays. Overall chondrichthyan extinction risk is substantially higher than for most other vertebrates, and only one-third of species are considered safe. Population depletion has occurred throughout the world’s ice-free waters, but is particularly prevalent in the Indo-Pacific Biodiversity Triangle and Mediterranean Sea. Improved management of fisheries and trade is urgently needed to avoid extinctions and promote population recovery. DOI:

Concepts: Conservation biology, Evolution, Plant, Endangered species, Extinction, Genetic erosion, Gene pool, IUCN Red List


Relict woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) populations survived on several small Beringian islands for thousands of years after mainland populations went extinct. Here we present multiproxy paleoenvironmental records to investigate the timing, causes, and consequences of mammoth disappearance from St. Paul Island, Alaska. Five independent indicators of extinction show that mammoths survived on St. Paul until 5,600 ± 100 y ago. Vegetation composition remained stable during the extinction window, and there is no evidence of human presence on the island before 1787 CE, suggesting that these factors were not extinction drivers. Instead, the extinction coincided with declining freshwater resources and drier climates between 7,850 and 5,600 y ago, as inferred from sedimentary magnetic susceptibility, oxygen isotopes, and diatom and cladoceran assemblages in a sediment core from a freshwater lake on the island, and stable nitrogen isotopes from mammoth remains. Contrary to other extinction models for the St. Paul mammoth population, this evidence indicates that this mammoth population died out because of the synergistic effects of shrinking island area and freshwater scarcity caused by rising sea levels and regional climate change. Degradation of water quality by intensified mammoth activity around the lake likely exacerbated the situation. The St. Paul mammoth demise is now one of the best-dated prehistoric extinctions, highlighting freshwater limitation as an overlooked extinction driver and underscoring the vulnerability of small island populations to environmental change, even in the absence of human influence.

Concepts: Climate change, Extinction, Megafauna, Mammoth, Woolly mammoth, Wrangel Island, Dwarf elephant, Pleistocene megafauna


Large plant-eating dinosaurs are usually presumed to have been strictly herbivorous, because their derived teeth and jaws were capable of processing fibrous plant foods. This inferred feeding behavior offers a generalized view of dinosaur food habits, but rare direct fossil evidence of diet provides more nuanced insights into feeding behavior. Here we describe fossilized feces (coprolites) that demonstrate recurring consumption of crustaceans and rotted wood by large Late Cretaceous dinosaurs. These multi-liter coprolites from the Kaiparowits Formation are primarily composed of comminuted conifer wood tissues that were fungally degraded before ingestion. Thick fragments of laminar crustacean cuticle are scattered within the coprolite contents and suggest that the dinosaurian defecators consumed sizeable crustaceans that sheltered in rotting logs. The diet of decayed wood and crustaceans offered a substantial supply of plant polysaccharides, with added dividends of animal protein and calcium. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the fossilized fecal residues depict year-round feeding habits. It is more reasonable to infer that these coprolites reflected seasonal dietary shifts-possibly related to the dinosaurs' oviparous breeding activities. This surprising fossil evidence challenges conventional notions of herbivorous dinosaur diets and reveals a degree of dietary flexibility that is consistent with that of extant herbivorous birds.

Concepts: Nutrition, Extinction, Cretaceous, Fossil, Paleontology, Dinosaur, Carnivore, Late Cretaceous


More than US$21 billion is spent annually on biodiversity conservation. Despite their importance for preventing or slowing extinctions and preserving biodiversity, conservation interventions are rarely assessed systematically for their global impact. Islands house a disproportionately higher amount of biodiversity compared with mainlands, much of which is highly threatened with extinction. Indeed, island species make up nearly two-thirds of recent extinctions. Islands therefore are critical targets of conservation. We used an extensive literature and database review paired with expert interviews to estimate the global benefits of an increasingly used conservation action to stem biodiversity loss: eradication of invasive mammals on islands. We found 236 native terrestrial insular faunal species (596 populations) that benefitted through positive demographic and/or distributional responses from 251 eradications of invasive mammals on 181 islands. Seven native species (eight populations) were negatively impacted by invasive mammal eradication. Four threatened species had their International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List extinction-risk categories reduced as a direct result of invasive mammal eradication, and no species moved to a higher extinction-risk category. We predict that 107 highly threatened birds, mammals, and reptiles on the IUCN Red List-6% of all these highly threatened species-likely have benefitted from invasive mammal eradications on islands. Because monitoring of eradication outcomes is sporadic and limited, the impacts of global eradications are likely greater than we report here. Our results highlight the importance of invasive mammal eradication on islands for protecting the world’s most imperiled fauna.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Conservation biology, Evolution, Species, Animal, Endangered species, Extinction, IUCN Red List


Frogs (Anura) are one of the most diverse groups of vertebrates and comprise nearly 90% of living amphibian species. Their worldwide distribution and diverse biology make them well-suited for assessing fundamental questions in evolution, ecology, and conservation. However, despite their scientific importance, the evolutionary history and tempo of frog diversification remain poorly understood. By using a molecular dataset of unprecedented size, including 88-kb characters from 95 nuclear genes of 156 frog species, in conjunction with 20 fossil-based calibrations, our analyses result in the most strongly supported phylogeny of all major frog lineages and provide a timescale of frog evolution that suggests much younger divergence times than suggested by earlier studies. Unexpectedly, our divergence-time analyses show that three species-rich clades (Hyloidea, Microhylidae, and Natatanura), which together comprise ∼88% of extant anuran species, simultaneously underwent rapid diversification at the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary (KPB). Moreover, anuran families and subfamilies containing arboreal species originated near or after the KPB. These results suggest that the K-Pg mass extinction may have triggered explosive radiations of frogs by creating new ecological opportunities. This phylogeny also reveals relationships such as Microhylidae being sister to all other ranoid frogs and African continental lineages of Natatanura forming a clade that is sister to a clade of Eurasian, Indian, Melanesian, and Malagasy lineages. Biogeographical analyses suggest that the ancestral area of modern frogs was Africa, and their current distribution is largely associated with the breakup of Pangaea and subsequent Gondwanan fragmentation.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Species, Bird, Extinction, Amphibian, Frog


An understanding of risks to biodiversity is needed for planning action to slow current rates of decline and secure ecosystem services for future human use. Although the IUCN Red List criteria provide an effective assessment protocol for species, a standard global assessment of risks to higher levels of biodiversity is currently limited. In 2008, IUCN initiated development of risk assessment criteria to support a global Red List of ecosystems. We present a new conceptual model for ecosystem risk assessment founded on a synthesis of relevant ecological theories. To support the model, we review key elements of ecosystem definition and introduce the concept of ecosystem collapse, an analogue of species extinction. The model identifies four distributional and functional symptoms of ecosystem risk as a basis for assessment criteria: A) rates of decline in ecosystem distribution; B) restricted distributions with continuing declines or threats; C) rates of environmental (abiotic) degradation; and D) rates of disruption to biotic processes. A fifth criterion, E) quantitative estimates of the risk of ecosystem collapse, enables integrated assessment of multiple processes and provides a conceptual anchor for the other criteria. We present the theoretical rationale for the construction and interpretation of each criterion. The assessment protocol and threat categories mirror those of the IUCN Red List of species. A trial of the protocol on terrestrial, subterranean, freshwater and marine ecosystems from around the world shows that its concepts are workable and its outcomes are robust, that required data are available, and that results are consistent with assessments carried out by local experts and authorities. The new protocol provides a consistent, practical and theoretically grounded framework for establishing a systematic Red List of the world’s ecosystems. This will complement the Red List of species and strengthen global capacity to report on and monitor the status of biodiversity.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Plant, Ecology, Ecosystem, Endangered species, Extinction, Ecological economics, IUCN Red List


Studies of the effects of mass extinctions on ancient ecosystems have focused on changes in taxic diversity, morphological disparity, abundance, behaviour and resource availability as key determinants of group survival. Crucially, the contribution of life history traits to survival during terrestrial mass extinctions has not been investigated, despite the critical role of such traits for population viability. We use bone microstructure and body size data to investigate the palaeoecological implications of changes in life history strategies in the therapsid forerunners of mammals before and after the Permo-Triassic Mass Extinction (PTME), the most catastrophic crisis in Phanerozoic history. Our results are consistent with truncated development, shortened life expectancies, elevated mortality rates and higher extinction risks amongst post-extinction species. Various simulations of ecological dynamics indicate that an earlier onset of reproduction leading to shortened generation times could explain the persistence of therapsids in the unpredictable, resource-limited Early Triassic environments, and help explain observed body size distributions of some disaster taxa (e.g., Lystrosaurus). Our study accounts for differential survival in mammal ancestors after the PTME and provides a methodological framework for quantifying survival strategies in other vertebrates during major biotic crises.

Concepts: Ecology, Extinction, Synapsid, Dinosaur, Extinction event, Triassic, Permian–Triassic extinction event, Dicynodont