One in Five Reptiles Worldwide Are Threatened With Extinction

Researchers assessed over 10,000 species in a comprehensive new study

A Tuatara in New Zealand
A Tuatara in New Zealand Kevin Schafer via Getty Images

A new study assessing over 10,000 reptile species found almost 2,000 are categorized as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The research was published in the journal Nature

“This work is a very significant achievement — it adds to our knowledge of where threatened species are, and where we must work to protect them,” Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm, who was not involved in the study, tells Christina Larson from the Associated Press

Previous studies have found that 40.7 percent of amphibians, 25.4 percent of mammals and 13.6 percent of birds risk extinction, but comprehensive assessments of reptiles have been lacking, per the study. This gap means reptiles have been omitted from analyses of conservation priorities, they write. The study found reptiles face similar threats as other mammals, birds and amphibians, including habitat destruction from agricultural expansion, invasive species and disease. 

“There’s no rocket science in protecting reptiles, we have all the tools we need,” study author Bruce Young, a senior scientist at the international nature organization NatureServe, tells the New York Times’ Catrin Einhorn. “Reduce tropical deforestation, control illegal trade, improve productivity in agriculture so we don’t have to expand our agricultural areas. All that stuff will help reptiles, just as it will help many, many, many other species.”

Reptiles that face the greatest threat are turtles, with about 60 percent of species at risk of extinction, and crocodiles, with 50 percent. Since 1500, 31 reptile species have gone extinct, and 40 critically endangered species are “possibly extinct,” the study found. 

Contrary to what the authors predicted, reptiles in forests are at greater threat than those in dry habitats such as deserts, grasslands, shrublands and savannahs. More than half of all reptile species live in forested habitats. 

“The outcome of this study provides strong motivation for taking conservation forward in Africa,” Krystal Tolley of the South African National Biodiversity Institute in Cape Town, South Africa, says in a statement. “Contrary to prior assumptions, our results showed there are elevated threat levels for forest reptiles. Given that the African continent is currently undergoing substantial habitat loss, especially for indigenous forests, we can now link forest loss to the high threat level of reptiles.” 

The assessment started in 2005, but stalled because of difficulties procuring funding, reports the AP. 

"Reptiles to many people are not charismatic,” Young tells BBC News’ Helen Briggs. “There's been a lot more focus on more furry, feathery species of vertebrates for conservation."