One-fifth of reptile species at risk of extinction

If these animals disappear, nearly 20 million years of evolutionary history will be lost. The culprit is humans and their lifestyle.

One-fifth of reptile species at risk of extinction
Extinction risk for one fifth of reptile species. Photo by Craig Pattenaude / Unsplash

At the end of April, the first global analysis of the situation of reptiles in the world appeared in the journal Nature and the results confirmed the fears of thousands of herpetologists: of 10,196 species analyzed (all known species), 21.1 percent are endangered, either because they are considered vulnerable, threatened or on the verge of extinction.

The study, signed by 52 authors -among them Georgina Santos Barrera, from UNAM's Faculty of Sciences- took 15 years to complete and involved the collaboration of 961 specialists. "The appearance of this text is something long-awaited by the scientific community," says Professor Julián Velasco, from the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate Change of the National University.

"What was published there is not good news, but neither is it a surprise," says the biologist, who adds that in the absence of an exhaustive study like the one in Nature, similar studies had already been carried out with random population samples. The results obtained then are very similar to those obtained now: "One in five reptiles is at risk of extinction," reads the article "The conservation status of the world's reptiles" in the January 2013 issue of Biological Conservation.

Since 1500, 31 varieties of reptiles have disappeared and another 40 could already be extinct. For the researcher, the fact that approximately 1,829 species are in danger today is evidence of something scientists have been warning about recently: the planet is going through the sixth mass extinction in its history and, unlike the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs, this time the culprit is not a natural phenomenon, but human beings and their voracious lifestyle.

It is estimated that there are eight million species, both flora and fauna, scattered around the globe and, if nothing is done, one million will disappear before the end of the 21st century, warns Professor Velasco.

"In this scenario, the latest studies show that reptiles face a high degree of threat, not as high as that of amphibians (40.7 percent), but similar to that of mammals (25 percent) and much higher than that of birds (13.6 percent). However, something to consider is that reptiles have very limited ranges and this factor puts them at much greater risk. The issue is serious; if these animals disappear, 15 to 20 million years of evolutionary history would be lost with them".

And he argues:

"Before there was not so much data. Today we have more clarity, we know more about the species' distribution areas and the impact of human activity on them. That means we can design better conservation measures. There is still time to act; that makes me optimistic."

Local actions with global impact

After Australia, Mexico is the country with the second-largest number of reptile species in the world. With 864, it is home to 7.8 percent of all reptiles worldwide. The presence of these animals in the national territory is so great that there is even a reptile represented on the Mexican flag.

However, we know very little about these animals because they do not enjoy the "charisma" of birds, mammals, and amphibians, and many people even view them with fear. "Let's take the case of snakes: in the countryside, many inhabitants kill them under the argument that they are poisonous, when almost none of them are, and without considering that they provide very important environmental services for humans, such as pests control."

In contrast, in Ciudad Universitaria, we have the tlacuache, another member of the local fauna that, being a mammal, is more charismatic to the student community, so much so that it recently launched a campaign to modify all the garbage cans on campus, as they represent a trap for them.

This phenomenon is usually replicated in macro, explains the academic, and that is why in Mexico we are more aware of the dangers faced by the jaguar due to deforestation than of the threat to which Abronia lizards -also known as Mexican dragons- are subjected due to the illegal trafficking of species because due to their beauty and color, there is a high demand for these spiny-scaled reptiles in Europe and the United States.

To raise awareness about these facts, the university researcher is currently developing a series of tools that allow visualizing the risk to which the species are subjected, even those of which little is said. This is a program that, when fed with information on the areas of distribution and the impact of variables such as climate change, deforestation, the introduction of foreign fauna, or hunting, calculates how many species there are in a site and how many could be lost in the future.

"This, in addition to helping specialists, would be very useful for non-experts such as decision-makers, who could easily see where and which would be the sites where conservation actions should be prioritized and resources allocated".

Although Professor Velasco is confident that there is still time to make amends, he also knows that this will not be possible without the participation of the new generations. "Hopefully more and more young people will become interested in studying the effects of climate change, land-use change, and other factors on species. There is little information about this in Mexico; if we manage to generate more data it will be easier to promote and achieve change.