Any mass extinctions yet?
Is the biosphere today on the verge of anything like the mass extinctions of the geological past? Could some equivalent of meteorite impacts or dramatic climate change be underway, as humankind's rapid destruction of natural habitats forces animals and plants out of existence?
Increasingly, researchers are doing the numbers, and saying, yes, if present trends continue, a mass extinction is very likely underway. The evidence is pieced together from details drawn from all over the world, but it adds up to a disturbing picture. This time, unlike the past, it's not a chance asteroid collision, nor a chain of climatic circumstances alone that's at fault. Instead, it is chiefly the activities of an ever-growing human population, in concert with long-term environmental change.
The background level of extinction known from the fossil record is about one species per million species per year, or between 10 and 100 species per year (counting all organisms such as insects, bacteria, and fungi, not just the large vertebrates we are most familiar with). In contrast, estimates based on the rate at which the area of tropical forests is being reduced, and their large numbers of specialized species, are that we may now be losing 27,000 species per year to extinction from those habitats alone.