THE BLOG
11/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sixth Mass Extinction Underway: Save the Buttercup?

Nearly half of all species are disappearing in what biologists from the University of California at Santa Barbara are calling "the sixth mass extinction of both plants and animals." They published research this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences after analyzing 40 studies of grassland ecosystems and performing a kind of conservation triage. Lead researcher Marc Cadotte said in a press release from the university, "We need to know which species matter the most -- and which we should pour our resources into protecting."

Microscopic cross section a buttercup root. The propeller shaped pattern in the center is the vascular tissue for transporting water and nutrients up and down the plant. The circles are individual cells.How did they make the call on what species deserve saving? By looking at their function in the larger ecosystem. In general, loss of species that perform unique functions and have few close relatives (in evolutionary terms) would cause the most disruption. Daisies and sunflowers, for example, are genetically similar. According to the researchers, if daisies disappeared from a certain grassland "community," sunflowers could take on their jobs. By contrast, the buttercup is relatively unique and would be difficult -- if not impossible -- to replace. Bottom line, the scientists say, "genetic diversity predicts whether or not species matter." That's a weighty dilemma. What do you think about using triage in conservation?