Public Release:  New study shows over one-fifth of the world's plants are under threat of extinction

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

A global analysis of extinction risk for the world's plants, conducted by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew together with the Natural History Museum, London and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has revealed that the world's plants are as threatened as mammals, with one in five of the world's plant species threatened with extinction. The study is a major baseline for plant conservation and is the first time that the true extent of the threat to the world's estimated 380,000 plant species is known, announced as governments are to meet in Nagoya, Japan in mid-October 2010 to set new targets at the United Nations Biodiversity Summit.

Scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Natural History Museum and IUCN Specialist Groups carried out the Sampled Red List Index assessments on a representative sample of the world's plants, in response to the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity and the 2010 Biodiversity Target. The work relied heavily on the vast repository of botanical information held in Kew's Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives, which includes some eight million preserved plant and fungal specimens; on specimens held in the Natural History Museum's own extensive herbarium of six million specimens; on digital data from other sources and on collaboration with Kew's network of partners worldwide. The results of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants will be launched at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew at a press call on 28 September 2010 at 10am.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew's Director, Professor Stephen Hopper, says: "This study confirms what we already suspected, that plants are under threat and the main cause is human induced habitat loss.

"For the first time we have a clear global picture of extinction risk to the world's known plants. This report shows the most urgent threats and the most threatened regions. In order to answer crucial questions like how fast are we losing species and why, and what we can do about it, we need to establish a baseline so that we have something against which to measure change. The Sampled Red List Index for Plants does exactly that by assessing a large sample of plant species that are collectively representative of all the world's plants."

He adds, "The 2020 biodiversity target that will be discussed in Nagoya is ambitious, but in a time of increasing loss of biodiversity it is entirely appropriate to scale up our efforts. Plants are the foundation of biodiversity and their significance in uncertain climatic, economic and political times has been overlooked for far too long.

"We cannot sit back and watch plant species disappear - plants are the basis of all life on earth, providing clean air, water, food and fuel. All animal and bird life depends on them and so do we. Having the tools and knowledge to turn around loss of biodiversity is now more important than ever and the Sampled Red List Index for Plants gives conservationists and scientists one such tool."

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman says, "This report comes at an important time in the lead up to the major international biodiversity meeting in Nagoya next month. It is deeply troubling that a fifth of the world's plants are facing extinction because of human activity. Plant life is vital to our very existence, providing us with food, water, medicines, and the ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

"We must take steps now to avoid losing some of these important species and the UK will show leadership as we look to make progress towards a framework for tackling the loss of the Earth's plant and animal species."

The study revealed:

  • About one third of the species (33%) in the sample are insufficiently known to carry out a conservation assessment. This demonstrates the scale of the task facing botanists and conservation scientists - many plants are so poorly known that we still don't know if they are endangered or not

  • Of almost 4,000 species that have been carefully assessed, over one fifth (22%) are classed as Threatened

  • Plants are more threatened than birds, as threatened as mammals and less threatened than amphibians or corals

  • Gymnosperms (the plant group including conifers and cycads) are the most threatened group

  • The most threatened habitat is tropical rain forest.

  • Most threatened plant species are found in the tropics

  • The most threatening process is man-induced habitat loss, mostly the conversion of natural habitats for agriculture or livestock use

The Sampled Red List Index for Plants is part of a worldwide effort to create a tool to monitor the changing status of the world's major groups of plants, fungi and animals. In the future, the project will involve reassessments at regular intervals which will chart the changing fortunes of the world's plants; much like a stock market index shows the ups and downs in the value of shares. This will highlight where and what conservation action is needed to protect plants. However, funding is needed in order to continue this important work.

7,000 plant species drawn from the five major groups of plants were included in the study: Bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), pteridophytes (these are land plants, such as ferns, that produce neither flowers nor seeds and reproduce via spores), gymnosperms (such as conifers and cycads), monocotyledons (one of the major groups of flowering plants including orchids and the economically important grass and palm families) and legumes (the pea and bean family), as representative of the other flowering plants. Both common and rare species were assessed in order to give an accurate picture of how plants are faring around the world.

As the task of assessing the threat to the world's plants (perhaps as many as 380,000 species) would present a much larger challenge than the assessments of threats to birds (10,027 species), mammals (5,490 species) or amphibians (6,285 species), a sampled approach was adopted where 1,500 species were randomly selected from each of the five major groups of land plants. Simulation modelling from the complete IUCN Red List assessments of birds and amphibians confirmed that 1,500 species for each group of plants would provide a representative view of plants overall.

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The results of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants will be announced at a press call at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew on 28 September 2010, starting at 10am. To attend, please call the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew press team on +44 (0)20 8332 5607 or email pr@kew.org

Interviewees available:

  • Professor Stephen Hopper, Director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
  • Professor David Mabberley, Keeper of the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives
  • Dr. Eimear Nic Lughadha, Senior Responsible Owner for the Sampled Red List Index for Plants at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
  • Steve Bachman, Plant Conservation Analyst and lead on the Sampled Red List Index for Plants at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
  • Dr. Neil Brummitt, Researcher in Botanical Diversity and lead on the Sampled Red List Index for Plants at the Natural History Museum
  • Justin Moat, Manager of the GIS Unit, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and project advisor, Sampled Red List Index for Plants

Images are available to download http://www.kew.org/press/images/SRLI_plant_list.html Please call the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew press office for a user name and password

A PDF with further background about the Sampled Red List Index for Plants is available from the Kew press office

A number of additional resources will be available on the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew website on 00.01 GMT 29 September: interactive maps and charts exploring the state of global plant life and profiles of plants assessed as part of the study. See http://www.kew.org/plants-at-risk (note this link only goes live on 00.01 GMT 29 September, to access these resources in advance contact the Kew press office)

Additional quotes:

Professor David Mabberley, Keeper of the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives: "Kew's Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives is the leading, international scientific resource on the botanical world and an invaluable asset to all those involved in plant conservation. We are incredibly proud to have played a principal role in reaching this important milestone in understanding the true scale of the threat to plants. In the future, the Sampled Red List Index for Plants will enable all of us to accelerate progress towards the important 2020 biodiversity target. Humanity cannot afford to lose a fifth of the world's plants and so we must act quickly."

Steve Bachman, Plant Conservation Analyst and lead on the Sampled Red List Index for Plants at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: "Present day human activities are pushing more plants towards extinction, but if the world's governments take the right steps at the UN biodiversity meeting in October, we do have the potential to safeguard plant life and the creatures that depend on it. Plants underpin many ecosystems and the loss of key species could cause the system to collapse like a house of cards."

He adds, "Technology is changing the face of conservation and increasingly we have the ability to manage masses of data to inform governments of the impact of human activities on biodiversity.

"Using herbarium collections and modern mapping techniques, including satellite images, we can identify regions of the world, such as Madagascar, where plants are most at risk, providing a focus for conservation work and making sure resources are used effectively and that the right plans are put in place to save these plants."

Dr. Neil Brummitt, formerly Plant Diversity Analyst and co-ordinator of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and now Researcher in Botanical Diversity and lead on the Sampled Red List Index for Plants at the Natural History Museum: "The diversity of plants underpins all life on earth, so it is sobering that our own species is threatening the survival of many thousands of plant species.

"The work in this report took us several years to complete and is based on very careful assessments of thousands of species worldwide by hundreds of scientists. For the first time we have reliable data on which types of plants are most threatened, where and why. It would not have been possible without modern developments in computers and satellite imagery: anyone can see the extent of habitat conversion with Google Earth, but our report relates this to the status of individual species all over the world and clearly shows the depth of the biodiversity crisis we face.

"All our efforts will have been worthwhile if the world's leaders can now be galvanised into taking significant steps towards reducing the current rate of loss of biodiversity. The Biodiversity Summit in Nagoya in October is the time and the place to take these steps. If we are to prevent the planet's sixth mass extinction then we need to act together, and act quickly - globalisation needs to be ecological as well as economic."

Dr. Eimear Nic Lughadha, Senior Responsible Owner for the Sampled Red List Index for Plants at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: "This landmark report represents the culmination of a huge amount of work by Kew staff, volunteers and collaborators over several years. It illustrates the unique and critically important role that Kew's data and expertise have to play in informing policy and guiding practical conservation action on the ground.

"Each individual assessment addresses the current status and threats to a particular species in sufficient detail to be of use to conservation practitioners in the field. Collectively the assessments form a unique, evidence-based and auditable overview of the status of the world's plant diversity.

"It's vital that we maintain and update the data set with field observations so that we can monitor trends over time, but it's equally important that we make it easy for other scientists to adopt a similar approach. The methodology employed by the project is widely applicable and has attracted significant interest for use at national level. But much of the data that would be required is effectively locked up in our Herbarium and an accelerated effort is needed to digitise it and make it widely available to those who need it in order to manage their plant resources effectively."

Notes to Editors

  • What makes the Sampled Red List Index for Plants different from Red List assessments already carried out for plant species?
    A completely random, representative sample of the world's plants, including plants that are not threatened, were assessed for The Sampled Red List Index for Plants. Whereas plants selected to be assessed as part of a Red List are often chosen precisely because they are at risk.

    The strength of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants is that it gives a representative view of the threat level to plants. It does not just assess threatened species and we are not assessing all of the world's threatened plants - there are many species known to be threatened not included in this study.

  • The Sampled Red List Index project is being co-ordinated overall by the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has coordinated the production of IUCN conservation assessments for plant species together with leading botanical institutions and the input of many scientists from around the world.

  • The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew produced the assessments for the flowering plant or angiosperm groups (monocots and legumes), ferns (pteridophytes) have been assessed by the Natural History Museum, and gymnosperms have largely been assessed by the IUCN Conifer and Cycad specialist groups. We have preliminary results for bryophytes (mosses) based on data from Missouri Botanical Garden, and this group will be tackled next. The study is part of IUCN's ongoing mission to assess the state of all life on Earth - the Red List of extinct and endangered species.

  • The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species summarises information on the taxonomy, conservation status and distribution of species for the world's major groups of plants and animals. The Red List uses the IUCN Categories of conservation status (Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, and Extinct/Extinct in the Wild) to categorise species on a global scale in order to highlight groups of animals and plants at risk of extinction, and promote their conservation.

  • Due to the lack of a comprehensive list of angiosperms (flowering plants) other than monocotyledons, 1,500 species were sampled from the representative family of Leguminosae (pea family), which has over 19,000 species and is one of the largest families of flowering plants.

  • As there are fewer than 1,500 gymnosperms, the assessments of all the estimated 1,000 species were used in the analysis.

  • Not all of the c. 7,000 plant assessments are on the Red List yet as they need to undergo a lengthy verification process; the results presented here are pending full IUCN Red List verification. However, where available, expert validation has already been obtained for these assessments and the overall ratings are not expected to change significantly. As part of the process for gathering expert verification the completed assessments for the Sampled Red List Index for Plants are being posted here: Sampled Red List Index for Plants

  • Work for the Sampled Red List Index for Plants has partly been funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, UK, the World Collections Programme (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Rio Tinto plc and the Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust, and from the indispensible efforts of dozens of volunteers.

  • The Sampled Red List Index for Plants has been underpinned by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew's work with Missouri Botanical Garden (St Louis, USA) and partners to produce a working list of known plant species: The Plant List. Target 1 of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation called for 'a working list of all known plant species' to be made available by 2010. It is the most comprehensive list to date, including almost all scientific names at species level that have been published for plants. Its importance lies in the need for accurate identification and reliable names for all human communication about plant life and its uses. The Target 1 list will be released in late 2010.

  • The Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC) is a cross-cutting conservation initiative of the United Nations CBD. The GSPC highlights the importance of plants and the ecosystem services they provide for all life on earth, and aims to ensure their conservation. It was first proposed in April 2000, following an ad hoc meeting of leading botanists and conservationists representing international and national organisations and other bodies from 14 countries. That meeting produced the Gran Canaria Declaration outlining the major elements of a Global Strategy for Plant Conservation. Subsequently it was adopted by the Parties to the CBD in April 2002 and fed into government policy around the world. The GSPC has 16 outcome- oriented targets under 5 main themes; for more information see http://www.cbd.int/gspc/intro.shtml or http://www.bgci.org/worldwide/gspc/

  • Through the Sampled Red List Index for Plants, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has contributed to Target 2 of the GSPC: 'a preliminary assessment of the conservation status of all known plant species'.

  • The 2010 biodiversity target is an overall conservation target aiming to significantly reduce the decline of biodiversity by the end of the year 2010. The 2010 Biodiversity Target was adopted by the world's governments in 2002 at the 6th Conference of the Parties (COP 6) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). For further information see http://www.twentyten.net/ or http://www.cbd.int/2010-target/

  • The tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 10) to the Convention on Biological Diversity will be held from 18 to 29 October in Nagoya, Japan. More information here http://www.cbd.int/cop10/. It is here that the world's governments will agree on the 2020 Biodiversity Target.

  • The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew's historic Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives is expanding during International Year of Biodiversity with a new state-of-the-art extension designed by Edward Cullinan Architects. The new wing, launched to the media on 28 September, will provide a modern space for part of the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archive's existing preserved plant, botanical art and book collections and allow for future acquisitions. The press call on 28 September offers an opportunity to tour the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives and receive a briefing on the Sampled Red List Index for Plants.

  • The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew's Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives is not just important to Kew - its extensive collection of preserved plant and fungal specimens sits at the heart of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew's plant conservation efforts and is internationally significant to organisations and governments working to protect plants. More about the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives here http://www.kew.org/ucm/groups/public/documents/document/ppcont_016015.pdf

  • The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (www.kew.org) is a world famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding living collection of plants and world-class Herbarium as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international visitor attraction. Its landscaped 132 hectares and Kew's country estate, Wakehurst Place, attract nearly 2 million visitors every year. Kew was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2009. Wakehurst Place is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and its partners have collected and conserved seed from 10% of the world's wild flowering plant species (c.30, 000 species) and aim to conserve 25% by 2020.

  • The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership has already achieved so much, and its enormous potential for future conservation can only be fulfilled with the support of the public and other funders. Kew needs to raise significant funds both in the UK and overseas. Members of the public can support the work of Millennium Seed Bank Partnership by getting involved with the 'Adopt a Seed, Save a Species' campaign. For £25 an individual can adopt a seed or for £1000 anyone can save an entire species. http://www.kew.org/adoptaseed

  • Winner of Visit London's 2009 Best London for Free Experience Award, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in over 68 countries. The Natural History Museum is part of the worldwide celebrations of the International Year of Biodiversity 2010. The diversity of life on Earth is crucial for human well-being and now is the time to act to preserve it. For information on events, initiatives and exhibitions across the UK, visit www.biodiversityislife.net

  • Founded in 1826, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is an international scientific, conservation and educational charity: our key role is the conservation of animals and their habitats. The Society runs ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, carries out scientific research at the Institute of Zoology and is actively involved in field conservation overseas. For further information please visit http://www.zsl.org/

  • 'Biodiversity Year at Kew' in 2010 celebrates the importance of plant diversity in underpinning biodiversity through a programme of themed and seasonal horticultural displays, art exhibitions, educational activities for all the family and scientific announcements. For a full programme of events see www.kew.org/biodiversity.

  • The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is part of the world-wide celebrations of 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity, and is one of over 300 UK organisations, charities and groups supporting this global awareness campaign. The diversity of life on earth is crucial for human well-being and now is the time to act to preserve it. For information on events, initiatives and exhibitions across the UK during 2010 visit www.biodiversityislife.net.

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