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of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” they pass from the Earth without notice.
Instead, extinction rates are usually estimated indirectly from principles of biogeography. As I mentioned above, the number of species of a particular group of organisms in island systems increases approximately as the fourth root of the land area. This has been found to hold true not just on real islands but also on habitat islands, such as lakes in a “sea” of land, alpine meadows or mountaintops surrounded by evergreen forests, and even in clumps of trees in the midst of a grassland (MacArthur and Wilson, 1967).
Using the area-species relationship, Simberloff (1984) has projected ultimate losses due to the destruction of rain forests in the New World tropical mainland. If present levels of forest removal continue, the stage will be set within a century for the inevitable loss of 12% of the 704 bird species in the Amazon basin and 15% of the 92,000 plant species in South and Central America.
As severe as these regional losses may be, they are far from the worst, because the Amazon and Orinoco basins contain the largest continuous rain forest tracts in the world. Less extensive habitats are far more threatened. An extreme example is the western forest of Ecuador. This habitat was largely undisturbed until after 1960, when a newly constructed road network led to the swift incursion of settlers and clear-cutting of most of the area. Now only patches remain, such as the 0.8-square-kilometer tract at the Rio Palenque Biological Station. This tiny reserve contains 1,033 plant species, perhaps one-quarter of which are known only to occur in coastal Ecuador. Many are known at the present time only from a single living individual (Gentry, 1982).
In general, the tropical world is clearly headed toward an extreme reduction and fragmentation of tropical forests, which will be accompanied by a massive extinction of species. At the present time, less than 5% of the forests are protected within parks and reserves, and even these are vulnerable to political and economic pressures. For example, 4% of the forests are protected in Africa, 2% in Latin America, and 6% in Asia (Brown, 1985). Thus in a simple system as envisioned by the basic models of island biogeography, the number of species of all kinds of organisms can be expected to be reduced by at least one-half—in other words, by hundreds of thousands or even (if the insects are as diverse as the canopy studies suggest) by millions of species. In fact, the island-biogeographic projections appear to be conservative for two reasons. First, tropical species are far more localized than those in the temperate zones. Consequently, a reduction of 90% of a tropical forest does not just reduce all the species living therein to 10% of their original population sizes, rendering them more vulnerable to future extinction. That happens in a few cases, but in many others, entire species are eliminated because they happened to be restricted to the portion of the forest that was cut over. Second, even when a portion of the species survives, it will probably have suffered significant reduction in genetic variation among its members due to the loss of genes that existed only in the outer portions.
The current reduction of diversity seems destined to approach that of the great natural catastrophes at the end of the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras—in other words,