More losers than winners: investigating Anthropocene defaunation through the diversity of population trends


The global-scale decline of animal biodiversity (‘defaunation’) represents one of the most alarming consequences of human impacts on the planet. The quantification of this extinction crisis has traditionally relied on the use of IUCN Red List conservation categories assigned to each assessed species. This approach reveals that a quarter of the world’s animal species are currently threatened with extinction, and ~1% have been declared extinct. However, extinctions are preceded by progressive population declines through time that leave demographic ‘footprints’ that can alert us about the trajectories of species towards extinction. Therefore, an exclusive focus on IUCN conservation categories, without consideration of dynamic population trends, may underestimate the true extent of the processes of ongoing extinctions across nature. In fact, emerging evidence (e.g. the Living Planet Report), reveals a widespread tendency for sustained demographic declines (an average 69% decline in population abundances) of species globally. Yet, animal species are not only declining. Many species worldwide exhibit stable populations, while others are even thriving. Here, using population trend data for >71,000 animal species spanning all five groups of vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fishes) and insects, we provide a comprehensive global-scale assessment of the diversity of population trends across species undergoing not only declines, but also population stability and increases. We show a widespread global erosion of species, with 48% undergoing declines, while 49% and 3% of species currently remain stable or are increasing, respectively. Geographically, we reveal an intriguing pattern similar to that of threatened species, whereby declines tend to concentrate around tropical regions, whereas stability and increases show a tendency to expand towards temperate climates. Importantly, we find that for species currently classed by the IUCN Red List as ‘non-threatened’, 33% are declining. Critically, in contrast with previous mass extinction events, our assessment shows that the Anthropocene extinction crisis is undergoing a rapid biodiversity imbalance, with levels of declines (a symptom of extinction) greatly exceeding levels of increases (a symptom of ecological expansion and potentially of evolution) for all groups. Our study contributes a further signal indicating that global biodiversity is entering a mass extinction, with ecosystem heterogeneity and functioning, biodiversity persistence, and human well-being under increasing threat.

Biological Reviews
Florencia Grattarola
Florencia Grattarola
Postdoc Researcher

Uruguayan biologist doing research in macroecology and biodiversity informatics.