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Can You Guess Which Country Has the Most Endangered Species?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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globesWe’re number two! The United States is home to 1,278 species at risk of extinction — the second-highest count worldwide — according to the latest update of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The update, released last week, brings the total number of species that have been assessed for their extinction risk up to 71,576. Of course, that’s just a fraction of the total world biodiversity, but digging into the IUCN’s numbers reveals some interesting data points, as well as some of the areas where our scientific knowledge still has room for improvement.

So let’s look at those numbers. According to IUCN counts, the countries with the highest numbers of species at risk of extinction are Ecuador (2,301), the U.S., Malaysia (1,226), Indonesia (1,206) and Mexico (1,074). India, China, Brazil, Tanzania and Australia round out the top ten; each of those nations has more than 900 species at risk of extinction on the IUCN Red List.

What do those numbers actually tell us? Both a lot and not much. Ecuador has the highest number of endangered species — not because the species there are more threatened but because the country made an intense effort over the last 15 years to evaluate its biodiversity. You can see the result of this work most notably in the assessment of Ecuador’s plants, which revealed that 1,843 of its native species are at risk.

The results of similar assessments are visible in other countries’ data. The U.S., for example, has the highest numbers of fishes (236) and mollusks (301) known to be at risk, as well as the highest number of recorded extinctions (257) on the IUCN Red List. Indonesia has largest number of mammals at risk (185), Brazil has the most birds (151), and Madagascar has the highest number of at-risk reptiles (136).

Of course numbers alone don’t tell the full story. Craig Hilton-Taylor, head of the IUCN Red List Unit, cautions that “you cannot use any of the country totals to show reliably which country has more threatened species than another” as they don’t reflect a country’s size, biodiversity levels, or other factors.

Meanwhile, an awful lot of species haven’t been assessed at all, or have only been assessed at national levels and not throughout their range, which may include several countries. Projects underway around the world will eventually help to fill that knowledge gap. “Brazil and South Africa are busy assessing all of their species,” Hilton-Taylor reports, “so those countries will suddenly have much higher numbers of threatened plants than all others because of the size of their respective floras.” Brazil is home to about 30,000 species and South African almost 20,000, so the Red List numbers will probably swell over the next few years.

Even that’s just a drop in the bucket. Earth is home to something like 1.9 million known species, with more being discovered every day. Estimates of the planet’s total biodiversity go as high as 12 million. How many of those species are currently endangered or even going extinct? That’s a number we don’t have.

Photo by Forrest O. via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 13 Comments

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  1. 1. gizmowiz 3:38 pm 12/5/2013

    It tells us that the human race is bad for life.

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  2. 2. tuned 6:54 pm 12/5/2013

    “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot” – Joni Mitchell (Big Yellow Taxi).

    Link to this
  3. 3. Devonshire 7:11 pm 12/5/2013

    “The saddest aspect of life right now is that SCIENCE GATHERS KNOWLEDGE faster than SOCIETY GATHERS WISDOM.”

    Professor of Biochemistry and prolific science author, Isaac Asimov

    Link to this
  4. 4. stu44 8:08 am 12/6/2013

    Over 99.9% of all the species that have ever existed on Earth are extinct. Extinction is a natural part of the biosphere. Humans are responsible for a miniscule percentage of extinctions. Save your ignorant,claptrap comments for the funny pages.

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  5. 5. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 8:12 am 12/6/2013

    I knew a comment phrased exactly like stu’s would show up sooner or later.

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  6. 6. Devonshire 8:51 am 12/6/2013

    Oh yes, since there are two (2) distinct groups with an agenda to DENY science: Cultists and Paid Internet Shills.

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  7. 7. stu44 9:15 am 12/6/2013

    I’m not a shill for any company and I’m an atheist. I’m also a critically minded believer in the scientific method. Which part of my comment denies science? I put forth a hypothesis and then back it with empirical data from numerous rigorous scientific studies. In case you were unclear, that is the basis of the scientific method.

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  8. 8. Devonshire 10:19 am 12/6/2013

    “I have found the missing link between the great ape and civilized man. It is we.”

    Konrad Lorenz, shared 1973 Nobel Prize in Medicine

    Link to this
  9. 9. tuned 2:08 pm 12/6/2013

    Kinda makes “squeaky clean” a dirty thing.
    Also, I was heretofore unaware that people that are a “critically minded believer in the scientific method” were unable to accept personal responsibility.
    You make me sad.

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  10. 10. oldfartfox 4:45 pm 12/6/2013

    We have met the enemy and he is us.


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  11. 11. francesco.varrato 10:06 am 12/10/2013

    It would then make sense to do a simple operation: fraction (“/”). What is, country by country, the ratio of species at risk compared / the total species of a country? This would eliminate part of the bias introduced by the oversampling of countries where the effort of evaluating the biodiversity has been made.

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  12. 12. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 3:34 pm 12/10/2013

    Some of that already exists:

    Link to this
  13. 13. peterwebb 11:04 pm 12/10/2013

    So the point of this article is that we don’t really know the comparative number of endangered species per country as the collection methodologies are different? And we shouldn’t trust the list because of this? And even if we did, the countries are so diverse (numbers 1 & 2 are the US and Ecuador, two very different countries) that no conclusions can be drawn?

    OK, we get it, the list is nonsense, and nobody has any idea how many species are endangered.

    Link to this

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