Science News: Improving the definition of “endangered” for slow-breeding species

– G.A., Senior Editor

Earth’s megafauna, such as the American bison and blue whale, are not only the most physically impressive species, they are also those most at risk for extinction. Global awareness of the importance of biodiversity and the growing threat to numerous species it at an all-time high. However, some scientists are concerned that the ways in which species are designated as “at risk” or “endangered” may not be adequate.

A recent paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution highlighted this issue with a focus on the Asian elephant. The authors point out that by focusing on trends in population numbers and distribution, we may not fully grasp the “demographic safe space” that a particular species requires in order to maintain a viable population. Understanding the factors that contribute to this safe space is of particular importance for large, slow-reproducing species like the Asian elephant.

The researchers emphasize the need to identify at-risk species before they reach a reproductive collapse, which can begin once a species reaches a critical tipping point. Of importance, is that this tipping point is not simply a number of wild animals, but a collection of factors that can prevent a species from maintaining a viable population.

To ensure that the iconic megafauna that roam the Earth today can still be seen by the generations to come, it is essential that we fully understand how species go extinct and when their populations are at their most threatened. If researchers are able to identify tipping points in advance, they may be able to institute protective measures that help vulnerable species remain viable.

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