If future paleontologists look back at the fossil record of our period, they may see a mass extinction event on par with the one that wiped out the dinosaurs — or perhaps surpassing it. Some scientists estimate that the current rate of extinction is as much as 100 times higher than at any other time in Earth’s history, and anthropogenic climate change could push the rate higher yet. In a sense, every species on the planet is endangered.
Still, scientists can identify that certain species are at particular risk for vanishing soon. The “Red List” published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature highlights thousands of threatened species, many of them microscopic or native to environments humans rarely encounter. But the endangered species we tend to actually think of are the ones conservationists often call “charismatic megafauna” — large, likable, often beautiful animals whose absence humans will notice if they go missing, like zebras, koalas, or humpback whales. (We tend not to notice plants as readily, but certain iconic trees like the baobab or Fraser fir can draw our attention.)
These notable species’ survival even to this point is actually unlikely. The fossil record and historical evidence both indicate that humans are the ultimate superpredator, and our ancestors quickly wiped out the vast majority of large terrestrial animals as we spread to each new continent or isolated island. Humans will kill just about anything, and some of these well known species are still hunted as food today. None of them are well adapted to survive conflict with Homo sapiens, the species that, in many cases, is the only predator they have to fear.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of the most endangered species on the planet, but all of these creatures will be noticeable in their absence if they do disappear due to climate change, habitat loss, or any other cause. While many of them will be protected in zoos and sanctuaries even if they go extinct in the wild, the fact that some have already vanished from most of their natural ranges is an ecological problem in and of itself. Unfortunately, some of these familiar plants and animals may not be around at all much longer.