Skip navigation
You are here: Home > NaturePlus > Science News > Science News > Tags > iucn

Science News

2 Posts tagged with the iucn tag

David Gower and Mark Wilkinson, NHM Zoology

It is well known that global diversity is generally under threat from factors such as habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, hunting, invasive species and disease. It takes very large collaborative efforts in order to be able to quantify an accurate overview of the latest situation, but this is needed because donors, policy makers and managers want to know to what extent conservation efforts can make a positive impact.

As part of just such an effort we contributed to an article published in the journal Science (Hoffman, M. et al. (2010) Science 330: 1503-1509).The article reported that although an increasing number of the World’s vertebrate species are threatened by extinction, the deterioration would have been at least one-fifth again as much in the absence of conservation efforts.

The Science study analysed up-to-date conservation assessments for nearly 26,000 of the World’s approximately 63,000 named species of vertebrates (fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals). The assessments are in the form of formal categorizations on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) “Red List” ( - the widely accepted 'standard’ for determining species’ risk of extinction.

zoology Annual report 2010-2011 final.jpg

Balebreviceps hillmani, a threatened amphibian from the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. [photo by DJ Gower]

Analyses of the Red List data revealed that 20% of vertebrates are classified as Threatened, with this percentage increasing. On average, 52 species of mammals, birds, and amphibians move one category closer to extinction every year (there are eight categories in all). However, of the 1,000 or so species that had undergone a change in their categorization in recent years, about 7% underwent an improvement in status, and almost all of these are part of conservation projects. Thus, in the absence of conservation effort, many more vertebrates would have slipped closer to extinction. Most of these improving vertebrate species are birds and mammals – those groups most often targeted by conservation projects. Only four species of amphibians have improved in status, and more than 40% of this group is threatened; so much remains to be done.

Vertebrates are generally very visible, often charismatic (and vital) components of ecosystems, and they commonly comprise conservation ‘flagship’ species, frequently with high cultural value. However, vertebrates comprise only 3% or so of known organismal species. The conservation status of many non-vertebrates has yet to be determined based on Red List criteria.

The Science paper was authored by a whopping 174 scientists. Like many of these researchers, we played a primary coordinating role that facilitated completion of the dataset. In particular, we finalized Red List assessments for all species of caecilian amphibians (in a workshop held at the NHM), and for some burrowing snakes. Museum science is essential for understanding species’ conservation status because its core business is the taxonomic and ecological work that underpins all other studies of life.

The Science paper was announced in a press release to coincide with the release of the latest Red List update at the Tenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Nagoya, Japan, October 2010. The paper ends with the following statements: “The 2010 biodiversity target may not have been met, but conservation efforts have not been a failure. The challenge is to remedy the current shortfall in conservation action to halt the attrition of global biodiversity.”

David Gower and Mark Wilkinson are Researchers in the Herpetology Research Group, NHM Department of Zoology


A recent major study (Hoffman et al., 2010) involving NHM amphibian scientists Mark Wilkinson and David Gower has concluded that although 20 per cent of vertebrate species are threatened, the rate of loss would have been one-fifth greater had conservation efforts not been in place. Conservation efforts have an effect, but this is not sufficient to prevent loss and extinction, or to meet ambitious international targets.


Most scientists in the museum study particular groups of organisms. However, the ecosystems in which they live are complex and diverse, containing a multitude of species.  If we want to understand patterns of global biodiversity loss, it is essential that many different scientists collaborate, so the paper in Science involved the work of more than 160 internationally expert scientists from many different countries, all specialists in different vertebrate groups: amphibians, fish, mammals, reptiles and birds.


A standard scale for classifying the level of threat to different species has been developed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) of which the NHM is a member.  Threats to particular species are set out in the IUCN Red List, which classifies threat levels from Least Concern, through Near Threatened; Vulnerable; Endangered; Critically Endangered; to Extinct in the Wild.  The study considered data for 25,780 species and found that 52 species of vertebrates move one category closer to extinction each year.  Forty-one per cent of amphibian species are threatened due to habitat loss and other factors such as disease.


This large-scale work in biodiversity science is essential to enable realistic plans to be drawn up by governments and others to combat biodiversity loss.  2010 was the UN International Year of Biodiversity, the target year for international commitments to slow the rate of biodiversity loss.  These targets were not met and we are now, until 2020, in the International Decade of Biodiversity, for the end of which there are new and demanding targets for slowing loss.

The science done by the NHM and its many international partners will be an essential element in taking effective action.


Hoffmann, M. et al. 2010 The Impact of Conservation on the Status of the World’s Vertebrates Science 10 December 2010: 330 (6010), 1503-1509.Published online 26 October 2010 [DOI:10.1126/science.1194442]