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Red List highlights threats to islands

Invasive species destroy isolated flora and fauna.

The last St Helena olive tree may have died this past week. Credit: © R. Cairns-Wicks/IUCN

Island plants and animals are the unfortunate stars of the new Red List of the world's most threatened species, released today by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

On Hawaii, 85 plant species that are found nowhere else are in danger of extinction. The same goes for 35 types of snail on the Galapagos Islands.

"It's a tragedy," says Craig Hilton-Taylor, an IUCN programme officer based in Cambridge, UK. "We've wrecked some incredibly diverse places."

One name may already have to be removed from the inventory. The St Helena olive (Nesiota elliptica) seems to have gone extinct within the past week. The leaves of the last known tree, on the South Atlantic island of St Helena, have withered and died.

Invasive species are the biggest threat to island wildlife, the list confirms. Goats, pigs, cats and rats eat the natives and destroy their habitat.

Marauders can be warded off - the introduced domestic cats that once threatened the seabird colonies of Marion Island, off the coast of South Africa, for example, have been eradicated. But it took 19 years and involved shooting, trapping, and introducing disease.

Worldwide, more than 12,000 species now fall into the three categories closest to extinction: vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered.

The indication from birds is that things are getting worse Craig Hilton-Taylor , IUCN

The list is growing as situations worsen, but also as information improves. Plants, in particular, are becoming better studied: this year's list includes seaweeds and lichens for the first time, and contains the first complete assessment of cycads and conifers.

The IUCN updates its Red List each year, based on information from 8,000 experts around the world.

Next year's list will include first complete assessment of amphibians, as well as reassessments of all mammals and birds. Early signs are worrying, says Hilton-Taylor: "The indication from birds is that things are getting worse."


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Whitfield, J. Red List highlights threats to islands. Nature (2003).

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