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Concept: Extinction


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


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


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


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


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


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


Despite their profound adaptations to the aquatic realm and their apparent success throughout the Triassic and the Jurassic, ichthyosaurs became extinct roughly 30 million years before the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Current hypotheses for this early demise involve relatively minor biotic events, but are at odds with recent understanding of the ichthyosaur fossil record. Here, we show that ichthyosaurs maintained high but diminishing richness and disparity throughout the Early Cretaceous. The last ichthyosaurs are characterized by reduced rates of origination and phenotypic evolution and their elevated extinction rates correlate with increased environmental volatility. In addition, we find that ichthyosaurs suffered from a profound Early Cenomanian extinction that reduced their ecological diversity, likely contributing to their final extinction at the end of the Cenomanian. Our results support a growing body of evidence revealing that global environmental change resulted in a major, temporally staggered turnover event that profoundly reorganized marine ecosystems during the Cenomanian.

Concepts: Evolution, Ecology, Ecosystem, Extinction, Cretaceous, Dinosaur, Jurassic, Ichthyosaur


Listing endangered and threatened species under the US Endangered Species Act is presumed to offer a defense against extinction and a solution to achieve recovery of imperiled populations, but only if effective conservation action ensues after listing occurs. The amount of government funding available for species protection and recovery is one of the best predictors of successful recovery; however, government spending is both insufficient and highly disproportionate among groups of species, and there is significant discrepancy between proposed and actualized budgets across species. In light of an increasing list of imperiled species requiring evaluation and protection, an explicit approach to allocating recovery funds is urgently needed. Here I provide a formal decision-theoretic approach focusing on return on investment as an objective and a transparent mechanism to achieve the desired recovery goals. I found that less than 25% of the $1.21 billion/year needed for implementing recovery plans for 1,125 species is actually allocated to recovery. Spending in excess of the recommended recovery budget does not necessarily translate into better conservation outcomes. Rather, elimination of only the budget surplus for “costly yet futile” recovery plans can provide sufficient funding to erase funding deficits for more than 180 species. Triage by budget compression provides better funding for a larger sample of species, and a larger sample of adequately funded recovery plans should produce better outcomes even if by chance. Sharpening our focus on deliberate decision making offers the potential to achieve desired outcomes in avoiding extinction for Endangered Species Act-listed species.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Endangered species, Extinction, Endangered Species Act, Biodiversity Action Plan, IUCN Red List, Threatened species, Recovery Plan


Whether introduced species invasions pose a major threat to biodiversity is hotly debated. Much of this debate is fueled by recent findings that competition from introduced organisms has driven remarkably few plant species to extinction. Instead, native plant species in invaded ecosystems are often found in refugia: patchy, marginal habitats unsuitable to their nonnative competitors. However, whether the colonization and extinction dynamics of these refugia allow long-term native persistence is uncertain. Of particular concern is the possibility that invasive plants may induce an extinction debt in the native flora, where persistence over the short term masks deterministic extinction trajectories. We examined how invader impacts on landscape structure influence native plant persistence by combining recently developed quantitative techniques for evaluating metapopulation persistence with field measurements of an invaded plant community. We found that European grass invasion of an edaphically heterogeneous California landscape has greatly decreased the likelihood of the persistence of native metapopulations. It does so via two main pathways: (i) decreasing the size of native refugia, which reduces seed production and increases local extinction, and (ii) eroding the dispersal permeability of the matrix between refugia, which reduces their connectivity. Even when native plant extinction is the deterministic outcome of invasion, the time to extinction can be on the order of hundreds of years. We conclude that the relatively short time since invasion in many parts of the world is insufficient to observe the full impact of plant invasions on native biodiversity.

Concepts: Plant, Ecology, Term, Extinction, Invasive species, Introduced species, Biogeography, Habitat fragmentation


Birds stand out from other egg-laying amniotes by producing relatively small numbers of large eggs with very short incubation periods (average 11-85 d). This aspect promotes high survivorship by limiting exposure to predation and environmental perturbation, allows for larger more fit young, and facilitates rapid attainment of adult size. Birds are living dinosaurs; their rapid development has been considered to reflect the primitive dinosaurian condition. Here, nonavian dinosaurian incubation periods in both small and large ornithischian taxa are empirically determined through growth-line counts in embryonic teeth. Our results show unexpectedly slow incubation (2.8 and 5.8 mo) like those of outgroup reptiles. Developmental and physiological constraints would have rendered tooth formation and incubation inherently slow in other dinosaur lineages and basal birds. The capacity to determine incubation periods in extinct egg-laying amniotes has implications for dinosaurian embryology, life history strategies, and survivorship across the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction event.

Concepts: Reptile, Extinction, Dinosaur, Extinction event, Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event