To name those lost: assessing extinction likelihood in the Australian vascular flora

Date: 29, Aug, 2019
Author(s):   Silcock, J. L., Field, A. R., Walsh, N. G., Fensham, R. J.
Publisher: Oryx

Extinction is a profound biological event, yet despite its finality it can be difficult to verify and many frameworks have been proposed to define formally that extinction has occurred. For most taxonomic groups and regions there is no reliable list of species considered to be probably or possibly extinct. The record of plant extinctions in Australia is no exception, characterized by high turn-over within lists, low transparency of attribution and lack of consistency between jurisdictions. This makes it impossible to evaluate how many plant taxa have become extinct in Australia. We present an ecological framework for assessing the likelihood of plant extinctions, based on taxonomic soundness, degree of habitat modification, detectability and search effort, underpinned by the best available expert knowledge. We show that, in sharp contrast to both the fate of the Australian fauna and prevailing assumptions, only 12 of 71 plant taxa currently listed as or assumed to be extinct are considered probably extinct, and a further 21 possibly extinct. Twenty taxa listed as or assumed to be extinct have dubious taxonomy or occurrence in Australia, and the remaining 18 taxa are considered possibly extant and further surveys are required to ascertain their status. The list of probably and possibly extinct plants is dwarfed by the number thought extinct but rediscovered since 1980. Our method can be used for vascular floras in other regions characterized by well-documented and curated floras and high levels of expert knowledge, and provides a transparent platform for assessing changes in the status of biodiversity.