Environment

From puffins to sharks, the UK species facing extinction

Puffins and basking sharks are among the UK species facing extinction, but it's not just these iconic species that are important. Even a humble two-millimetre-long spider matters, say conservationists.

Endangered Species Day: spider, puffin, basking shark

These are just some of the thousands of species at risk in the UK. Photos by: Buglife, Nigel Appleton, jidanchaomian

Every year, thousands of people around the world mark Endangered Species Day by taking action to protect the planet’s most at-risk animals and plants. Celebrated on the third Friday in May, it’s a chance to highlight the dangers threatening wildlife, from climate change to habitat destruction.

“The extinction crisis is a massive global emergency,” says Sarah Starman, national grassroots organiser of the Endangered Species Coalition, the primary sponsor of Endangered Species Day.

More than 37,400 species globally are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). That’s 28 per cent of all types of wildlife and plants included in their assessment.

“Every time we lose a species, we’re losing something unique and valuable,” Starman adds. And beyond that, every time we lose a species, it becomes more difficult for other species to remain healthy and stable. Species are connected to each other in intricate webs of relationships, and removing one species from the web can affect the whole system. If the extinction crisis continues, we may find ourselves at a point where entire ecosystems come crashing down.”

But it’s not just about losing that final animal, says Paul Pearce-Kelly, senior curator of invertebrates and fish at the Zoological Society of London. 

“If you had a magic wish that no more species would go extinct, you could still have an absolute environmental crisis,” he says. “Because it’s not just the last coral to become lost, it is the functional role that those species have played in the environment.

“That’s why our challenge is to not just appreciate them in their own right, but also the critical need for them to be a healthy population so they can functionally continue to do what they’re doing for us all the time.”

The ZSL London Zoo’s new exhibition Tiny Giants: From Minibeasts to Coral Reefs celebrates the vital roles of tiny creatures in global ecosystems, and explores what we can do to protect them. 

The greatest threat facing species as a whole is climate change, says Pearce-Kelly. While he would encourage people to do their bit by ensuring their garden is wildlife-friendly and joining local green groups, Pearce-Kelly argues that the best way to get involved this Endangered Species Day is to educate yourself and then lobby your political representatives to take action.

“It all really comes down to policy, and people being aware of the reality of what’s going on,” he says. “Everyone has the power to raise their concerns with their representatives. It costs nothing and is probably the best chance of having some measurable impact.”

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the conservation status of biological species. More than 2,000 UK species are named in the list. These are just a few of the species that we could lose if we do not take action.

Endagered Species Day: The puffin
Photo: Nigel Appleton
Puffins are particularly at risk from climate change. Photo: Nigel Appleton

Puffin

Attractive and charming, puffins are one of the most beloved of the UK’s seabirds. They are also one of the species that is most at risk from climate change. Their population has been assessed by the IUCN as vulnerable, which means they face a high risk of extinction in the wild.

“We are seeing population declines in the UK and across Europe,” says RSPB media officer Jenna Hutber. “The rate of decline is seriously worrying to scientists, and without halting this decline we do risk losing this iconic and popular bird in the next few decades.”

The UK is home to 10 per cent of the global puffin population, and you can currently spot them on cliff sites across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland during their breeding season between March and mid-August. The rest of the year, they live out at sea in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, which makes them particularly susceptible to pollution, such as oil spills.

They are also highly threatened by climate change. “Their staple diet is sandeels, a small eel-like fish rich in oils, but rising sea temperatures have caused sandeel populations to drop dramatically,” says Hutber.

“Sometimes there is a lack of alternative food and so puffins are having to travel further to feed their chicks which can lead to chicks dying before they are old enough to leave the nest.

“On Shetland we found some puffins are having to make round trips of 250km, ten times further than normal, and bringing back much smaller sandeels compared with those on mainland colonies further south.”

So what can we do? “The best thing we can all do is visit coastal nature reserves where puffins can be found. Seeing these amazing birds in person and talking about them and the need to save them will help make sure decision makers and politicians realise what is at stake,” says Hutber.

You can find out more about how the RSPB is working to protect puffins here.

horrid ground-weaver spider
horrid-ground-weaver-credit-buglife
The horrid ground-weaver looks like it has a moustache. Photo: Buglife

Horrid Ground-weaver

The horrid ground-weaver may not have the most promising of names, but this tiny spider is actually “endearing in its own two-millimetre-long way,” says Andrew Whitehouse. Whitehouse has been working with these critically endangered spiders for more than 10 years as part of the Buglife charity, which is dedicated to conservation, education and policy change to protect insects, bugs and invertebrates.

The ‘horrid’ in the spider’s name is not actually meant as a slur. It comes from the Latin word for bristly and refers to the hairs on its legs and face, which can make the arthropods look like they have a moustache when viewed under a microscope.

The horrid ground-weaver was only discovered in 1989 and is now found in just three small sites near Plymouth. It had previously been found in four areas, but the site on which it was discovered has since been tarmacked over to become an industrial park. Buglife campaigned to save one of the other sites from being turned into a housing development, while another came under threat from a cycle path.

This shows the threat that exists to its tiny pockets of habitat, says Whitehouse. “It’s super rare, and super threatened,” he explains.

If you want to do your bit to protect the horrid ground-weaver, Whitehouse says, you can join Buglife as a member. “The bugs don’t have a voice and so we speak for them,” he says. “And if people are interested in spiders, a good thing to do is just to get to know them a little bit better. Find out more about spiders and how absolutely fascinating they are as a group of creatures.”

basking shark
basking shark credit jidanchaomian
The basking shark feeds on tiny zooplankton. Photo: jidanchaomian

Basking Shark

With its great, gaping mouth, the huge basking shark could give the unwary diver a shock were they lucky enough to come upon one unawares. But this is no Jaws-style predator. The basking shark feeds exclusively on microscopic animals called zooplankton.

Up until 1995, basking sharks were heavily fished in the Northeast Atlantic. They were targeted for their liver oil and meat, and also for their large fins. They are now one of the most heavily protected sharks in UK and EU waters, and it is illegal to intentionally kill, injure or harass basking sharks in British waters. But they are still at risk of extinction.

Long lived, slow growing, these sharks also produce few young, making them extremely vulnerable to human impacts. They are at risk from boat strikes, entanglement in fishing nets and disruption from human activities – even sometimes from people trying to watch them.

The Shark Trust has put together a plan for how you can help basking sharks, including pledging to behave responsibly in the UK’s coastal waters and recording any sightings through their database to help monitor the population. Read more here.

interrupted brome flowering grass
interrupted brome credit Plantsurfer
The interrupted brome has been reintroduced after being extinct in the wild. Credit: Plantsurfer

The Interrupted Brome

The interrupted brome is a flowering plant in the grass family, which has been officially extinct in the wild since 1972. However, it is actually a tentative success story for reintroduction.

Realising the threat in the 70s, University of Edinburgh botanist Philip M. Smith collected seeds from the last population of the interrupted brome in Cambridge. He went on to germinate and grow them in a pot on this windowsill. Thanks to his foresight, the plant went on to be cultivated at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh.

In 2004, the interrupted brome was re-introduced to Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve in the Chiltern Hills, marking the first known re-introduction of an extinct plant in Britain.

Find out more about the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh.

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