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A human taste for rarity spells disaster for endangered species

The shady pursuit of endangered bird eggs made international headlines in May 2006 when Colin Watson, widely considered Britain's most notorious illegal egg collector, died after falling from a 12-meter tree, allegedly while hunting a rare egg. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds estimates that up to 30 of Britain's most vulnerable species are targeted by collectors. Classical economics theory predicts that such exploitation is unlikely to extinguish a species because the cost of finding the last individuals would outweigh the benefits. But a new theoretical study in PLoS Biology shows that adding human behavior to the equation--specifically, the human penchant for rarity--reveals an unexpected mechanism of exploitation, with alarming implications for species survival. Franck Courchamp, Elena Angulo, and their colleagues incorporated the assumption that rarity increases a species' value into a classic model of resource exploitation used to manage fisheries. Prizing rarity, they found, triggers a positive feedback loop between exploitation and rarity that drives a species into an extinction vortex.

This phenomenon, the authors explain, resembles an ecological process called the Allee effect, in which individuals of many plant and animal species suffer reduced fitness at low population densities, which increases their extinction risk. The authors' model now shows that humans can trigger an "anthropogenic Allee effect" in rare species through a paradox of value. When rarity acquires value, prices for scarce species can skyrocket, even though continued exploitation will precipitate extinction. And as long as someone will pay any price for the rarest of the rare, market price will cover (and exceed) the cost of harvesting the last giant parrot, tegu lizard, or lady's slipper orchid on Earth.

The authors describe multiple human activities that could precipitate the anthropogenic Allee effect. Hobby collections of the sort Watson allegedly g
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Contact: Natalie Bouaravong
press@plos.org
415-568-3445
Public Library of Science
27-Nov-2006


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