Scientific bias helping cause mass extinction

Scientific bias towards the cute, unique or spectacular may be helping condemn a substantial proportion of the world's plants and animals to extinction, suggests an Australian ecologist.

Scientists develop and use lists of extinct and threatened species to provide social and legal mandates for conservation, to report on the state of the environment and to guide the allocation of scarce resources.

Associate Professor Mark Burgman, a University of Melbourne botanist, criticises the way the lists are developed and our reliance on them to manage the environment. He says they are biased and largely unresponsive to the underlying true threats to species.

"We are facing the prospect of a mass extinction event to rival the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago if we continue to rely on such lists as a management tool for the conservation of our environment," he says.

Burgman unveils his evidence for scientific bias in the lists and the consequences of the bias in an invited paper in the forthcoming January edition of the Australian Journal of Botany. His criticism flows from his involvement in a working group of international experts from the USA-based National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and from an Australian Research Council grant to investigate extinction in Australian flora.

"Possibly the most striking consequence of the way national lists are generated is their focus on large, spectacular, or high profile species, and on geographically restricted and specialised species, and these tend to be the vascular plants and vertebrates," he says.

"The result is that extinction rates amongst the less well studied groups are considerably higher than the rates implied by the lists of 'known' extinctions. These less appealing species are victims of a lack of interest and are unlikely to attract resources for conservation because priorities are tied to lists whose composition depends on the interests

Contact: Jason Major
University of Melbourne

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