Large marine animals will face same fate as the mammoth

Written by on September 19, 2016 in Marine Life

New research reveals an unprecedented pattern of extinction in the oceans: larger marine animals face a higher risk of extinction (thanks primarily to humans) than smaller ones.

Image from Stanford on Earth video.

Image from Stanford on Earth video.

“We’ve found that extinction threat in the modern oceans is very strongly associated with larger body size,” Jonathan Payne, a paleobiologist at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, said in a news release. “This is most likely due to people targeting larger species for consumption first.”

Payne and his colleagues studied the extinction threat level and ecological traits (like body size) of vertebrates and mollusks over the past 500 years and compared it with ancient times.

“We used the fossil record to show, in a concrete, convincing way, that what is happening in the modern oceans is really different from what has happened in the past,” said study co-author Noel Heim, a postdoctoral researcher in Payne’s lab.

“What our analysis shows is that for every factor of 10 increase in body mass, the odds of being threatened by extinction go up by a factor of 13 or so,” Payne said. “The bigger you are, the more likely you are to be facing extinction.”

This pattern has dangerous implications for the overall health of marine ecosystems because things that happen at the top of the food web tends to trickle down to other groups.

Why are humans to blame? Well for starters, while this pattern of extinction is new to the oceans, it’s been seen before on land.

“We see this over and over again,” Heim said. “Humans enter into a new ecosystem, and the largest animals are killed off first. Marine systems have been spared up to now, because until relatively recently, humans were restricted to coastal areas and didn’t have the technology to fish in the deep ocean on an industrial scale.”

But that has changed.

“It is consistent with the tendency for fisheries to first exploit larger species and subsequently move down the food web and target smaller species,” said study co-author Matthew Knope, a former postdoc in Payne’s lab who is now an assistant professor of biology at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.

The good news, Payne said, is that it’s not too late.

“We can turn this situation around relatively quickly with appropriate management decisions at the national and international level.”

Watch the video to learn more about mass extinctions:

For more information:

Copyright © 2016 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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