High proportion of cactus species threatened with extinction


A high proportion of plant species is predicted to be threatened with extinction in the near future. However, the threat status of only a small number has been evaluated compared with key animal groups, rendering the magnitude and nature of the risks plants face unclear. Here we report the results of a global species assessment for the largest plant taxon evaluated to date under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List Categories and Criteria, the iconic Cactaceae (cacti). We show that cacti are among the most threatened taxonomic groups assessed to date, with 31% of the 1,478 evaluated species threatened, demonstrating the high anthropogenic pressures on biodiversity in arid lands. The distribution of threatened species and the predominant threatening processes and drivers are different to those described for other taxa. The most significant threat processes comprise land conversion to agriculture and aquaculture, collection as biological resources, and residential and commercial development. The dominant drivers of extinction risk are the unscrupulous collection of live plants and seeds for horticultural trade and private ornamental collections, smallholder livestock ranching and smallholder annual agriculture. Our findings demonstrate that global species assessments are readily achievable for major groups of plants with relatively moderate resources, and highlight different conservation priorities and actions to those derived from species assessments of key animal groups.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Geographic distribution of threatened species.
Figure 2: Patterns of biodiversity of Cactaceae.
Figure 3: Threatening processes and drivers impacting cacti.
Figure 4: Cactus species affected by different threat processes and drivers, and used for different purposes.


  1. 1

    Mora, C., Tittensor, D. P., Adl, S., Simpson, A. G. B. & Worm, B. How many species are there on Earth and in the ocean. PLoS Biol. 9, e1001127 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria Version 3.1 (IUCN Species Survival Commission, 2001).

  3. 3

    Polidoro, B. A. et al. The loss of species: mangrove extinction risk and geographic areas of global concern. PLoS ONE e13636 (2010).

  4. 4

    Short, F. T. et al. Extinction risk assessment of the world's seagrass species. Biol. Cons. 144, 1961–1971 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Version 2014.1; http://www.iucnredlist.org

  6. 6

    Gaston, K. J. The Structure and Dynamics of Geographic Ranges (Oxford Univ. Press, 2003).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Pitman, N. C. A. & Jørgensen, P. M. Estimating the size of the world's threatened flora. Science 298, 989 (2002).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Hubbell, S. P. et al. How many tree species are there in the Amazon and how many of them will go extinct? Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105 (suppl.), 11498–11504 (2008).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Joppa, L. N., Visconti, P., Jenkins, C. N. & Pimm, S. L. Achieving the Convention on Biological Diversity's goals for plant conservation. Science 341, 1100–1103 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Paton, A. & Nic Lughada, E. The irresistible target meets the unachievable objective: what have 8 years of GSPC implementation taught us about target setting and achievable objectives? Bot. J. Linn. Soc. 166, 250–260 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Stuart, S. N. et al. Status and trends of amphibian declines and extinctions worldwide. Science 306, 1783–1786 (2004).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Schipper, J. et al. The status of the world's land and marine mammals: diversity, threat, and knowledge. Science 322, 225–230 (2008).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Bramwell, D., Raven, P. & Synge, H. Implementing the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation. Plant Talk 30, 32–37 (2002).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Burton, J. On the Red Lists and IUCN. Plant Talk 32, 5 (2003).

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Heywood, V. H. Red listing – too clever by half? Plant Talk 31, 5 (2003).

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Heywood, V. H. & Iriondo, J. M. Plant conservation: old problems, new perspectives. Biol. Conserv. 113, 321–335 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Callmander, M. W., Schatz, G. & Porter, P. P. IUCN Red List assessment and the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation taxonomist must act now. Taxon 54, 1047–1050 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Schussler, E. E., Link-Perez, M. A., Weber, K. M. & Dollo, V. H. Exploring animal and plant content in elementary science textbooks. J. Biol. Educ. 44, 123–128 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Mares, M. A. Neotropical mammals and the myth of Amazonian biodiversity. Science 255, 976–979 (1992).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Durant, S. M. et al. Forgotten biodiversity in desert ecosystems. Science 336, 1379–1380 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Carpenter, K. E. et al. One-Third of reef-building corals face elevated extinction risk from climate change and local impacts. Science 321, 560–563 (2008).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Taylor, N. P. in Cactus and Succulent Plants - Status survey and Conservation Action Plan (ed. Oldfield, S. ) Comp. 18–19 (IUCN, 1997).

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Salafsky, N. et al. A standard lexicon for biodiversity conservation: unified classifications of threats and actions. Conserv. Biol. 22, 897–911 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Hernández, H. M. & Gómez-Hinostrosa, C. Studies on Mexican Cactaceae IV. A new subspecies of Echinocereus palmeri Britton & Rose, first record of the species in the Chihuahuan Desert. Bradleya 22, 1–8 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Sajeva, M., Augugliaro, C., Smith, M. J. & Oddo, E. Regulating internet trade in CITES species. Conserv. Biol. 27, 429–430 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Hoffmann, M. et al. The impact of conservation on the status of the world’s vertebrates. Science 330, 1503–1509 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


In memory of Betty Fitz-Maurice and Eduardo Méndez. We are grateful to the University of Sheffield and the University of Exeter for housing the Global Cactus Assessment (GCA); for the institutional support of IUCN, in particular staff of the Global Species Programme, the IUCN Species Survival Commission and the IUCN SSC Cactus and Succulent Specialist Group and the office of the Chair of IUCN SSC which made available valuable resources, via the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi, at a critical juncture in the project; to the donors and hosts who made the eight GCA workshops possible as well as the individuals (in parentheses) who helped with the organization and logistics—Mexico's Comisión Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas, Comisión Nacional para Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad (S. Cariaga and A. López) and Instituto Nacional de Ecología, Conservation International, the North of England Zoological Society, Jardín Botánico Regional de Cadereyta (E. Sánchez and M. Magdalena Hernández Martínez), Desert Botanical Garden (C. Butterworth), the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, Jardin Exotique de Monaco (J.-M. Solichon), the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, Conservation International-Brazil, Instituto Chico Mendes, Instituto Argentino de Investigaciones de Zonas Áridas (R. Kiesling and M. Superina), The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Instituto de Ecología y Biodiversidad project P05-002 ICM, Universidad de Chile (P. Guerrero), Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (J. Maschinski), National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Laboratorio de Cactología at the Insituto de Biología UNAM (H. Hernández and C. Gómez-Hinostrosa) and Keidanren Nature Conservation Fund; and to G. Charles, P. Hoxey, J. A. Hawkins, C. Yesson and Sukkulenten-Sammlung Zürich who provided point locality data. B.G. was partially funded by Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología grant 0000000000118202. We are indebted to the hard work put in by volunteers P. Durán, E. Hounslow, R. Lee, C. Malone, C. F. Rose, K. Watt and S. Willhoit; to L. Bacigalupe and J. Bennie for assistance with analyses; and to M.L. Ávila-Jiménez, J. Bennie, M.G. Gaston, S. Gaston and five anonymous reviewers for comments on the manuscript.

Author information




B.G. and K.J.G. jointly created, developed and led the project. C.H.T., A.F., H.M.H., J.S., M.S., N.P.T., M.T., A.M.A, S.A., H.J.A.N., M.A.B., R.T.B., D.B., P.B., C.A.B., A.B., F.C., M.C.B., R.C.D., M.D.V.P., P.H.D., W.A.D.B., R.D., L.F.Y., R.S.F., B.F.M., W.A.F.M., G.G., C.G.H., L.R.G.T., M.P.G., P.C.G., B.H., K.D.H., J.G.H.O., M.H., M.I.I., R.K., J.L., J.L.L.D., C.R.L.S., M.L., M.C.M., L.C.M., J.G.M.A., C.M., J.M., E.M., R.A.M., J.M.N., V.N., L.J.O., P.O.B., A.B.P.F., D.J.P., J.M.P., R.P., J.R.G., P.S.P., E.S.M., M.S., J.M.S.M.C., S.N.S., J.L.T.M., T.T., M.T., M.T., T.V., T.R.V., M.E.V., H.E.W., S.A.W., D.Z., J.A.Z.H. contributed to the species assessment process. G.C.P., J.P.D., R.I. and C.P. conducted the analyses. B.G. and K.J.G. drafted the manuscript and this was commented on by all of the authors.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Bárbara Goettsch or Kevin J. Gaston.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Goettsch, B., Hilton-Taylor, C., Cruz-Piñón, G. et al. High proportion of cactus species threatened with extinction. Nature Plants 1, 15142 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nplants.2015.142

Download citation

Further reading


Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing