What distinguishes endangered and vulnerable plant species from widely available ones? Why some species are on the edge of extinction while others thrive and spread all over the world? Those are the questions that nature would rather ask us — humanity, who is responsible for its actions affecting most of the wildlife and nature.
Main factors contributing to loss of plant diversity
Whatever the cause of rarity, when species are rare they are far more vulnerable to everyday events than common species. The vast majority of species starts off their existence as rare and are most likely local in one site. They compete with other plant species, can be threatened by insects, vertebrates and microorganisms, or may have favourable associations with animals for pollination and seed dispersal, or fungi for nutrient uptake. They can also be adapted to unique combinations of soils and climate nearly impossible to find elsewhere.
All those factors can be limiting for the species to be habitat specific, and natural habitat loss is the primary cause of extinction at local, regional and global scales. Plants’ natural habitats are destroyed due to extensive urban development, road and dam building, agriculture, tree logging and many other human related actions and are estimated to be the cause of risk for around 80% of endangered plant species. Furthermore habitat loss is harmful not only to a single species, but to the whole communities and ecosystems.
Also introductions of invasive alien species can lead to species extinction, and it’s not a science fiction but an actual fact — an “alien” refers to any species that is moved by humans to an area outside of its native range and is able to survive and even thrive in its new location. At that point they are becoming invasive and pose a great threat to native species.
Pollution is also a great threat to plants because of the release of chemical, physical, biological or radioactive contaminants in the environment. Particularly serious troubles arise from misusing pesticides or insecticides, which can adversely affect wild plants in the area and the populations of pollinators that is absolutely necessary for many plants to reproduce.
Other factor that has contributed to the progressive decline of plant diversity is climate change. Although no global plant extinctions have yet been attributed to anthropogenic climate change, there is evidence that local extinctions have occurred at the climatic margins of species ranges. After around 1 °C of global warming so far, many plants are leafing and flowering earlier in spring and delaying leaf fall in autumn.
Why some species are more vulnerable than others?
Well, humans just like plants are willing to spend their lifetime in places they feel most comfortable and belonging to, but unlike humans who can move to entirely different place and conditions and yet feel good, most of plants cannot, and that’s because plants have completely different and much slower adaptation mechanisms than humans. They can’t put on a coat to get warm, go to the market to grab some food when hungry, see a doctor when feeling sick, carry out artificial insemination or escape of a bear’s claws. Instead of that they start to stress out and rely solely on their genetics to be enough adaptive to trigger responses that will help them survive. And this is the point where the sad story begins. Without appropriate adaptation mechanisms plant species are in danger of extinction and within the foreseeable future can go extinct.
The fight for diversity
Threatened and endangered species are likely to become extinct in future if special protection and management efforts are absent. Luckily there are people who are dedicated to save our planet species creating and funding networks of protected sites like Natura 2000, which aims to halt the loss of biodiversity in the EU by restoring habitats and natural systems (special areas of conservation (SACs) and the special protection areas (SPAs)). At EU level, nature and biodiversity are protected by several laws. Also EU has adopted The Habitats Directive to help maintain animal and plant biodiversity and another ambitious strategy setting out 6 targets and 20 actions to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020.
You can easily help to save our planet’s biodiversity!
We have to admit that most of endangered species are now included in the red list because of previous lack of concern. Besides the abovementioned actions and efforts of European Commission and other worldwide nature conservation programs, there are many relatively small everyday actions you can take to help preserving our planet’s biodiversity and sustainability! Lower the amount of waste you produce by recycling and buying food in biodegradable packaging. Try to walk more, use public transportation or go by bike to help reduce air pollution. Buy and consume more eco-friendly products like those from organic farming and what’s more — search for cosmetic, household cleaning product and medicine ingredients that are produced only in environmentally friendly and sustainable manner! Be aware of your actions and stay friends with other planet inhabitants!
Alternative Plants is a biotech start-up that uses plant stem cell technology as a tool to make inaccessible ingredients form rare medicinal plants accessible in a highly sustainable way.