Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.8, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.5, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.10, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.2

NCSS: People, Places, and Environments • Science, Technology, and Society • Global Connections

THE BIG READ

On the Road to Extinction

Humans are changing the planet so rapidly that 1 million species are now at risk of disappearing forever. Can we survive without them?

As You Read, Think About: How can human activities harm plants and animals? How can they help?

Something was wrong. As ecologist Brad Lister walked through the Puerto Rican rainforest looking for insects a few years ago, he wondered: Where are all the butterflies? 

A few years ago, ecologist Brad Lister walked through the Puerto Rican rainforest. He was looking for insects. But something was wrong. He wondered: Where are all the butterflies?

It had been 35 years since his last visit. Back then, hundreds of butterflies had flown through the air—and his traps had quickly become covered in all kinds of bugs. 

Now Lister caught only a few insects in each trap, if any, and he saw almost no butterflies. The scientist could hardly believe it. 

“It was clear there had been a catastrophic collapse of the insect population,” Lister recalls.

He decided to investigate. His research ultimately showed that 98 percent of the area’s ground insects had disappeared since the 1970s. Scientists studying insects in different locations worldwide have discovered similar losses. One report published last year even warned that insects as a whole might “go down the path of extinction in a few decades.”

As it turns out, insects aren’t the only living things in trouble. As many as 1 million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, according to a recent United Nations (U.N.) report. What’s more, scientists say, people are to blame.

It had been 35 years since his last visit. Back then, hundreds of butterflies had flown through the air. And his traps had quickly become covered in all kinds of bugs.

Now Lister caught only a few insects in each trap, if any. He saw almost no butterflies. The scientist could hardly believe it.

“It was clear there had been a catastrophic collapse of the insect population,” Lister recalls.

He decided to investigate. In time, his research showed that 98 percent of the area’s ground insects had disappeared since the 1970s. Scientists studying insects in different locations worldwide have discovered similar losses. One report published last year included a warning. It said insects as a whole might “go down the path of extinction in a few decades.”

As it turns out, insects are not the only living things in trouble. As many as 1 million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction. That is according to a recent United Nations (U.N.) report. Scientists say that people are to blame.

What You Need to Know

Pete Oxford/NaturePL.com

A tapir wades in a river in Peru. The mammal plays a key role in its ecosystem by spreading seeds.

Ecosystem A community of plants, animals, and other organisms that interact with each other and their physical environment, including things like rocks and weather. Each part depends directly or indirectly on the other parts. 

Endangered Species A plant or animal species that is at risk of extinction in all or most of its natural range. There are three levels: vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered. Of those levels, vulnerable species are at the lowest risk of dying off completely and endangered species face the next highest risk. Critically endangered species face the greatest risk of all.

Ecosystem A community of plants, animals, and other organisms that interact with each other and their physical environment, including things like rocks and weather. Each part depends directly or indirectly on the other parts. 

Endangered Species A plant or animal species that is at risk of extinction in all or most of its natural range. There are three levels: vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered. Of those levels, vulnerable species are at the lowest risk of dying off completely and endangered species face the next highest risk. Critically endangered species face the greatest risk of all.

Farming, logging, and other activities have put more species at risk than ever before in human history. Without intervention, scientists warn, many of those species could die out within decades. Such losses could have a devastating effect on the planet—and on us. Earth’s wide variety of species and ecosystems is essential to the food, clean water, and breathable air that people need to survive.

“We’re at a really important crossroads right now,” explains ecologist Pamela McElwee, an author of the U.N. report. “The decisions we make in the next 10 to 30 years will enable these species to recover or send them into a complete spiral.” 

As experts gather more research, people worldwide are beginning to ask: Can anything be done to slow the losses? And could humans survive such a catastrophe?

Farming, logging, and other activities have put more species at risk than ever before in human history. Scientists warn that without intervention, many of those species could die out within decades. Such losses could have a devastating effect on the planet—and on us. Earth’s wide variety of species and ecosystems is essential. It affects the food, clean water, and breathable air that people need to survive.

“We’re at a really important crossroads right now,” explains ecologist Pamela McElwee. She is an author of the U.N. report. “The decisions we make in the next 10 to 30 years will enable these species to recover or send them into a complete spiral.”

As experts gather more research, people worldwide are beginning to ask: Can anything be done to slow the losses? And could humans survive such a catastrophe?

Raphael Alves/AFP via Getty Images

Cutting down trees for timber in Brazil and other countries has devastated animal habitats.

The Human Impact

People have long cleared land for farms, cut down trees for fuel and building materials, mined for minerals, and fished and hunted for food. But over the past 50 years, the number of humans has more than doubled—to 7.7 billion. 

And as the human population has grown, so has its reach. People have significantly altered about 75 percent of the world’s land area, according to the U.N. report. 

Nearly every ecosystem has been affected, from savannas in Africa to rainforests in South America. Roads and cities have replaced wetlands. Overfishing, tourism, and pollution threaten coral reefs and other marine life. Illegal hunting has endangered rhinos, tigers, elephants, and other animals.

People have long cleared land for farms and cut down trees for fuel and building materials. They have long mined for minerals, and fished and hunted for food. But over the past 50 years, the number of humans has more than doubled. The world population is now 7.7 billion.

As the human population has grown, so has its reach. People have made major changes to about 75 percent of the world’s land area. That is according to the U.N. report.

Nearly every ecosystem has been affected. That includes savannas in Africa and rainforests in South America. Roads and cities have replaced wetlands. Overfishing, tourism, and pollution threaten coral reefs and other marine life. Illegal hunting has endangered animals such as rhinos, tigers, and elephants.

Earth’s wide variety of species is essential to the food, water, and air that people need to survive.

Global warming—the rise in Earth’s average temperature—is making the problem worse. Longer periods of drought, melting sea ice, and rising ocean levels are altering habitats around the world. Those changes are making it harder for plant and animal species to survive in the natural habitats that still exist.

A lot of damage has already been done, scientists say. Global populations of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians have declined by 60 percent since the 1970s, according to a 2018 report by the World Wildlife Fund. 

And future losses could be even worse, the U.N. report warns. Forty percent of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals, one-third of reef-forming corals, and about 10 percent of insects are in jeopardy. In addition, more than 500,000 land species do not have enough natural habitat left for long-term survival, scientists say.

Global warming is making the problem worse. That is the rise in Earth’s average temperature. Longer periods of drought, melting sea ice, and rising ocean levels are changing habitats around the world. Those changes are making it harder for plant and animal species to survive in the natural habitats that still exist.

A lot of damage has already been done, scientists say. Global populations of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians have declined by 60 percent since the 1970s. That is according to a 2018 report by the World Wildlife Fund.

Future losses could be even worse, the U.N. report warns. Forty percent of amphibian species and one-third of marine mammals are in jeopardy. So are one-third of reef-forming corals and about 10 percent of insects. In addition, more than 500,000 land species do not have enough natural habitat left for long-term survival, scientists say.

Comeback Creatures

These three species almost vanished—but their populations rebounded once humans stepped in to help.

All Canada Photos/Alamy Stock Photo

Bald Eagle
In 1963, only about 400 nesting pairs were left in the wild. Why? Use of a pesticide called DDT had poisoned the bald eagle’s food supply. The U.S. government passed protection laws and banned DDT. As a result, 14,000 nesting pairs now live in the contiguous U.S.

Bald Eagle
In 1963, only about 400 nesting pairs were left in the wild. Why? Use of a pesticide called DDT had poisoned the bald eagle’s food supply. The U.S. government passed protection laws and banned DDT. As a result, 14,000 nesting pairs now live in the contiguous U.S.

Dennis Fast/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Gray Wolf
Decades of hunting nearly killed off the American gray wolf. In 1975, only about 1,000 remained in the contiguous states. The gray wolf received endangered species protections that same year, shielding it from hunting. Its numbers have since grown to about 6,000.

Gray Wolf
Decades of hunting nearly killed off the American gray wolf. In 1975, only about 1,000 remained in the contiguous states. The gray wolf received endangered species protections that same year, shielding it from hunting. Its numbers have since grown to about 6,000.

Suzi Eszterhas/Minden Pictures

Sea Otter
Trappers hunted sea otters for their fur for centuries. By 1911, when an international treaty was signed to protect the species, fewer than 2,000 of the animals were left. Today, the sea otter population has rebounded to about 125,000, but the animals are still endangered.

Sea Otter
Trappers hunted sea otters for their fur for centuries. By 1911, when an international treaty was signed to protect the species, fewer than 2,000 of the animals were left. Today, the sea otter population has rebounded to about 125,000, but the animals are still endangered.

A Chain Reaction

Even losing just a few species can throw off entire ecosystems. Each plays a role—such as predator or prey—that affects other species. For example, if a food source for many creatures becomes extinct, those animals may struggle to find food, or may even starve. 

Extinctions would also have a serious impact on humans, scientists say. “There are a lot of things ecosystems do that humans are utterly dependent on,” says McElwee. Trees and other plants remove pollutants from the air. Wetlands filter and purify drinking water. Tropical plants and corals are used to make important medicines, including for diseases such as cancer.

Large-scale plant and animal losses could also jeopardize humans’ food supply. More than 75 percent of food crops worldwide rely on pollination by animals, such as bees and bats. Many of the animals that people use in agriculture, including some types of sheep and cattle, are also threatened. And the number of crop species is shrinking. That’s worrisome, scientists say, because if one or more of those species get wiped out by pests or disease, our food production could be devastated.

“Life on Earth is an intricate fabric,” ecologist Sandra M. Díaz, another author of the U.N. report, has said. “We are threads in that fabric. If the fabric is getting holes and fraying, that affects us all.”

Losing even just a few species can throw off entire ecosystems. Each plays a role, such as predator or prey. Each role affects other species. For example, a food source for many creatures could become extinct. Then those animals may struggle to find food. Or they may even starve.

Extinctions would also have a serious impact on humans, scientists say. “There are a lot of things ecosystems do that humans are utterly dependent on,” says McElwee. Trees and other plants remove pollutants from the air. Wetlands filter and purify drinking water. Tropical plants and corals are used to make important medicines, including for diseases like cancer.

Large-scale plant and animal losses could also jeopardize humans’ food supply. More than 75 percent of food crops worldwide rely on pollination by animals, such as bees and bats. Many of the animals that people use in agriculture are also threatened. That includes some types of sheep and cattle. And the number of crop species is shrinking. That is worrisome, scientists say. One or more of those species could get wiped out by pests or disease. Then our food production could be devastated.

“Life on Earth is an intricate fabric,” ecologist Sandra M. Díaz has said. She is another author of the U.N. report. “We are threads in that fabric. If the fabric is getting holes and fraying, that affects us all.”

Saving the Species

Avoiding extinctions will require a global effort—from both countries and individuals, scientists say. Governments can do their part by cracking down on illegal logging, hunting, and fishing. World leaders also can make a difference by taking steps to limit global warming, the report says. Meanwhile, farmers can contribute by finding more environmentally friendly ways to grow larger amounts of food on less land.

All people—including kids and teens—can help by wasting less food, water, and natural resources. Individuals can also use their voices to make a difference, McElwee says. They can demand that governments enact greener policies for how energy is produced and consumed. They can push restaurants to offer smaller portions so less food is wasted. And they can buy from companies that produce goods sustainably. 

There is hope, experts say. Past conservation efforts have managed to save some species from the brink of extinction (see “Comeback Creatures,” above). And more than 15 percent of Earth’s land and 7 percent of its oceans are already set aside as nature reserves and wilderness areas—protecting them from certain human activities.

Many experts are urging that such protections be expanded. For example, the World Wildlife Fund, the United Nations Foundation, and other conservation groups have called for world leaders to protect 30 percent of land and 30 percent of the oceans by the year 2030. 

Ultimately, scientists say, more has to be done on all fronts—and fast. “We need to take steps to prevent that final extinction from happening,” McElwee says. “It’s really up to us.”

Avoiding extinctions will require a global effort—from both countries and individuals, scientists say. Governments can do their part by cracking down on illegal logging, hunting, and fishing. World leaders also can make a difference by taking steps to limit global warming, the report says. Meanwhile, farmers can contribute by finding more environmentally friendly ways to grow larger amounts of food on less land.

All people can help. That includes kids and teens. People can help by wasting less food, water, and natural resources. Individuals can also use their voices to make a difference, McElwee says. They can demand that governments enact greener policies for how energy is produced and consumed. They can push restaurants to offer smaller portions so less food is wasted. And they can buy from companies that produce goods sustainably.

There is hope, experts say. Past conservation efforts have managed to save some species from the brink of extinction (see “Comeback Creatures,” above). And more than 15 percent of Earth’s land and 7 percent of its oceans are already set aside as nature reserves and wilderness areas. That protects them from certain human activities.

Many experts are urging that such protections be expanded. For example, some conservation groups have called for world leaders to protect 30 percent of land and 30 percent of the oceans. They want this to happen by the year 2030. The groups calling for this include the World Wildlife Fund and the United Nations Foundation.

Basically, scientists say, more has to be done on all fronts. And it has to be done fast. “We need to take steps to prevent that final extinction from happening,” McElwee says. “It’s really up to us.”

Write About It! Why should people care about plant and animal species facing extinction? Write an argument essay that encourages people to help protect Earth’s species. Support your reasons with evidence from the text.

How YOU Can Help

Human actions have put as many as 1 million species at risk of extinction. Those plants and animals—and their ecosystems—help supply the food, clean water, and breathable air we need to survive. Scientists say saving these species will require action from both nations and individuals. Here are some ways to make a difference, regardless of your age. 

STAY INFORMED

• Learn about endangered species in your area—and what’s threatening them—by searching the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service database of endangered species. Then teach your family and friends about them.

• Dive deeper into the United Nations report featured in this article. 

• Observe and document nature in your area as a citizen scientist. Professional researchers can use your findings to help track wildlife populations. With a parent’s or teacher’s permission, report sightings of mammals at eMammal, bees at Bumble Bee Watch, monarch butterflies at JourneyNorth, and birds at eBird

• Learn about endangered species in your area—and what’s threatening them—by searching the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service database of endangered species. Then teach your family and friends about them.

• Dive deeper into the United Nations report featured in this article. 

• Observe and document nature in your area as a citizen scientist. Professional researchers can use your findings to help track wildlife populations. With a parent’s or teacher’s permission, report sightings of mammals at eMammal, bees at Bumble Bee Watch, monarch butterflies at JourneyNorth, and birds at eBird

SPREAD THE WORD

• Share what you’ve learned from Junior Scholastic with your family and friends, both in person and online. If you post about the issue on social media, use the hashtags #ClimateAction#VoiceForThePlanet, and #JuniorScholastic. Encourage other people to do the same.

• Write a letter to your U.S. senators and representative in Congress. Tell them why they should support laws to protect endangered plants, animals, and habitats, and advocate for greener policies to help reduce global warming. Find their names and contact info at congress.gov/members, then send your note by mail or email. Not sure exactly what to say? We’ll walk you through the process with our Skill Builder Speak Up!

• Share what you’ve learned from Junior Scholastic with your family and friends, both in person and online. If you post about the issue on social media, use the hashtags #ClimateAction#VoiceForThePlanet, and #JuniorScholastic. Encourage other people to do the same.

• Write a letter to your U.S. senators and representative in Congress. Tell them why they should support laws to protect endangered plants, animals, and habitats, and advocate for greener policies to help reduce global warming. Find their names and contact info at congress.gov/members, then send your note by mail or email. Not sure exactly what to say? We’ll walk you through the process with our Skill Builder Speak Up!

CHANGE HABITS