Over-estimating extinction rates

19 05 2011

I meant to get this out yesterday, but was too hamstrung with other commitments. Now the media circus has beat me to the punch. Despite the lateness (in news-time) of my post, my familiarity with the analysis and the people involved gives me a unique insight, I believe.

So a couple of months ago, Fangliang He and I were talking about some new analysis he was working on where he was testing the assumption that back-casted species-area relationships (SAR) gave reasonable estimates of inferred extinction rates. Well, that paper has just been published in today’s issue of Nature  by Fangliang He and Stephen Hubbell entitled: Species–area relationships always overestimate extinction rates from habitat loss (see also the News & Views piece by Carsten Rahbek and Rob Colwell).

The paper has already stirred up something of a controversy before the ink has barely had time to dry. Predictably, noted conservation biologists like Stuart Pimm and Michael Rosenzweig have already jumped down Fangliang’s throat.

Extinction rates of modern biota in the current biodiversity crisis (Ehrlich & Pringle 2008) are wildly imprecise. Indeed, it has been proposed that extinction rates exceed the deep-time average background rate by 100- to 10000-fold (Lawton & May 2008; May et al. 1995; Pimm & Raven 2000), and no rigorously quantification of these rates globally has ever been accomplished (although there are several taxon- and region-specific estimates of localised extinction rates (Brook et al. 2003; Regan et al. 2001; Hambler et al. 2011; Shaw 2005).

Much of the information used to infer past extinction rate estimates is based on  the species-area relationship (e.g., Brook et al. 2003); this method estimates extinction rates by reversing the species-area accumulation curve, extrapolating backward to smaller areas to calculate expected species loss. The concept is relatively simple, even though the underlying mathematics might not be. Read the rest of this entry »