endangered species: Causes of Endangerment

Causes of Endangerment

Hunting, trapping, and poisoning to protect livestock have taken a great toll among predatory mammals and birds. Overharvesting is currently threatening species worldwide, especially food fish species such as the cod. A large number of species are threatened by introduced species, or “exotics,” plants or animals that are introduced into a habitat and bring with them diseases or the ability to compete more effectively than native species. The now ubiquitous European starling, for example, purposely introduced into the United States in the 1890s, is displacing the native American bluebird and other species, and the brown tree snake, native to Australia and introduced to Guam during World War II, has preyed on native species of that island to the extent that nine bird species are now extinct. Another danger is hybridization with other species and subspecies.

Another important threat is destruction of habitat by chemical pollutants. For example, bird populations have suffered great losses because of insecticides. The chemicals they contain, such as DDT, accumulate in birds' bodies and interfere with calcium metabolism. As a result, the females lay eggs with extremely thin shells or no shells at all, so the embryos do not survive to hatching. Acid rain has destroyed the habitats of many North American fish and amphibians by lowering the pH of surface waters. It is also changing the soil chemistry and harming many tree species.

Most serious of all, the destruction of physical habitat—by the drainage and filling of swamps and marshes, by the damming of rivers, by the leveling of forests for residential and industrial development, by strip mining, and by oil spills and water pollution—has left many creatures with literally no room in which to live and breed. For example, only 5% of the original forests in the 48 coterminous states, i.e., those forests that were present at the time of the first European settlement, are still standing.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Environmental Studies