Wired originally published this article, which is being reprinted here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
There is a math issue with the biodiversity catastrophe. Unlike most arithmetic problems, this one can cause you to make mistakes if you are too focused on the exact numbers. Maybe 1 million species are in danger of being extinct. Or, if you’re going by the number of species that have been formally designated as threatened by experts, it’s 42,100.
Both of these, however, are slightly off. We can all agree that extinction rates today are 1,000 times higher than they were in the past. Is it 100 times higher, then?
Here’s the thing: No matter the numbers you enter into the equation, the outcome is always the same. The condition of the earth is grave. More species are in danger of going extinct than we can possibly save. We are in a crisis, and in crises, we must prioritize our victims.
The selection of which species to save and which to exclude is at the core of conservation, yet the process by which these choices are made is rarely discussed. Do we choose animals with cultural significance, such as the bald eagle? Or should we concentrate on plants with medicinal properties?
What about species that play a key role in their ecosystem? Or those who are most in danger? Then there are animals who draw our attention due to their cuteness, charm, or, in the case of meerkats, because they serve as the upbeat, anthropomorphized faces of several British advertisements for auto insurance. Simples.
We can choose which species to protect by adopting yet another perspective when thinking about animals. Conservationist Rikki Gumbs of the Zoological Society of London contends that we ought to pay more attention to species that are both unique in evolution and in danger of extinction.
This strategy has the potential to introduce us to numerous unusual and fascinating organisms. Consider solenodon ts as an illustration. One of the very few venomous mammals alive today is this shrew-like creature. Around 76 million years ago, the two extant solenodon species split from other mammals. On those very little, very hairy shoulders is a lot of evolutionary history.
Fortunately, scientists have the means to gauge how rare and endangered a particular species is. Conservationists created the EDGE metric in 2007. It was created as a method to give species that represented a significant portion of evolutionary history a higher priority for conservation.
It stands for evolutionarily unique and globally endangered. A species must be evolutionarily unique, have a relatively small number of closely related living organisms, and be at grave risk of extinction in order to receive a high EDGE score.
These species, according to Gumbs, are “strange and fantastic” because they separated from their progenitors so long ago and have so few living relatives that they stand out to us as different. Gumbs coined the word “edgy” to describe such species. The Madagascar blind snake, a vivid pink burrowing reptile that split from its closest living relative around 65 million years ago, is another edgy species.
To update the EDGE metric, Gumbs gathered a group of zoologists in 2017. Today’s biologists have a far better understanding of the relationships between various animal species and the status of endangered species. Also, Gumbs wished for a mechanism for the EDGE metric to score species whose conservation status is unclear, which pertains to the great majority of the world’s organisms.
The new EDGE metric was finished last year after much back and forth and a medical emergency that sidelined Gumbs for more than a year. The new measurement, dubbed EDGE2, was released on February 28, 2023, in the journal PLOS Biology.
There are many underappreciated species out there, and if you come to know them, they are just as captivating and stunning as the ones we are aware of, claims Gumbs. The mountain pygmy possum, a tiny marsupial that lives in the wild across a few square kilometers of Australia’s Victorian Mountains, should be our highest-priority mammal, according to the EDGE2 criteria.
The long-eared gymnure, a relative of hedgehogs that are mostly located in Laos, is the most concerning of the mammals for whom we don’t have reliable conservation data. Amphibians, birds, corals, reptiles, sharks, rays, and gymnosperms—a class of plants that includes conifers and cycads—have also had their EDGE ranks determined.
It has become popular to view animals in terms of their unique evolutionary characteristics. One of the indicators chosen for the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, a significant biodiversity agreement adopted by the UN in December 2022, was the EDGE meter.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which compiles the red list of endangered species, also maintains a phylogenetic diversity task force, which Gumbs serves as deputy head of. Instead of focusing on single species, safeguarding entire ecosystems that sustain a variety of evolutionarily diverse plants and animals is a growing priority, according to Gumbs.
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Of course, considering conservation objectives in terms of evolutionary distinctiveness is just one approach. Before making any major decisions, organizations that choose which projects to fund, where to locate protected areas, and which species to prioritize frequently consider a wide range of variables.
Nevertheless, Rafael Molina Venegas, a professor of plant biodiversity at the Universidad Aut noma de Madrid in Spain, claims that the EDGE2 statistic gets at something intriguing.
Evolutionarily distinct species are comparable to extremely rare, one-of-a-kind books of which there are only a few copies if you imagine all the species in the world as individual books. A treasure trove of the world’s evolutionary history will be lost forever if these unique species disappear.
There is also another factor that makes the evolutionary differences important. According to Molina Venegas‘ research, if we choose plant species based on their evolutionary uniqueness, we’ll end up saving more plant species that are beneficial to humans than if we choose species at random. In other words, choosing species to protect seems to be a practical exercise in aiming for uniqueness.
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Imagine Armageddon as one way to think about the EDGE metric: One year from now, an errant asteroid will destroy Earth. Thankfully, researchers have found another vacant planet in the universe that resembles Earth.
The only thing left to do is choose which species to load onto our spacecraft and transport it to the next planet. According to Molina Venegas, evolutionary distinctiveness might not be a terrible place to start. By doing this, you’d bring a variety of animals with you, each serving a specific purpose in the new world. According to him, the idea is that they will support one another in the new ecosystem that would have to develop there.
On Earth’s biodiversity, people are in many ways staging a slow-motion Catastrophe. We don’t need to have the spacecraft ready just yet, but we do need to carefully consider the resources we have to stop the extinction of unique species. We have resources like gene banks, scientific research, and conservation zones.
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Another important tool is the way we conceptualize biodiversity. Everyone wants to rescue the creatures, but due to humanity’s insatiable development and the limited resources available for conservation, there is competition among species. The math simply doesn’t work out until we make difficult judgments about which species to protect.