Thursday, 23 October 2014

The invisible extinction

A palaeontologist wonders whether the future fossil record will preserve evidence of animals that vanish today.
21 October 2014

Of the 82 species of bats that are endangered or vulnerable, only three are preserved in the fossil record.

When Roy Plotnick thinks about species going extinct, he tries to envision how that might look to a scientist millions of years from now. Plotnick, a palaeontologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has launched an unusual thought experiment to consider whether animals that vanish today might never be represented in the future fossil record. He calls it the 'invisible extinction'.

Plotnick sat down with Nature this week at a Geological Society of America meeting in Vancouver, Canada, where he put these ideas forward.
What is the invisible extinction?

We’re in the middle of what is called the sixth extinction now. If we were to be looking back from a million years in the future, what would it look like? Would we know if species going extinct now had ever existed, if all we had to go on was fossil remains?
How do you study something like that?

We started with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, with the various categories of threatened species, and decided to go with mammals. There are 715 mammal species on the list. We matched the Red List to various data sets that describe modern mammals, to see which species in the list are found in the fossil record.

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