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There's still time to save species in the Amazon...

Sloth at the forest edge.
[Image courtesy of Robert Ewers]

…but the clock's ticking, a new study shows.

The Brazilian Amazon is the largest continuous forest on Earth, and it holds more than 40 percent of the world's tropical rainforest.

In many places, humans are cutting down the trees to make room for farming and other activities, and experts are worried that without a place to live, the animals and plants there will go extinct.

But, it takes several generations before a species disappears completely. When species are losing their habitat but haven't yet gone extinct, scientists call this "extinction debt."

The new research shows that the Brazilian Amazon is in the process of building up a large extinction debt, but that only a small fraction of all the vertebrates that are in trouble have already gone extinct.

Oliver Wearn of Imperial College London in Silwood Park, the United Kingdom and colleagues figured this out using a mathematical model that predicts how quickly species will become extinct in a region depending on the amount of habitat lost.

The researchers say that the years ahead offer a window of opportunity to concentrate conservation efforts in areas with the greatest extinction debt, which could help save species that are still hanging on, before they disappear for good.

The research appears in the 13 July 2012 issue of the journal Science.