When we think about species going extinct, we normally think of them as functioning separately from other species. For example, we think about saving the whales, but don’t really think about any other species with which endangered whales interact.
A study published in Science suggests that extinction is actually a lot more complicated. The problem is that extinction of one species can cause the extinction of a bunch of others.
Scientists call this process coextinction. For example, take hummingbird flower mites. If hummingbirds went extinct, the mites would go extinct too because they would have no way of getting from flower to flower. The same goes if the flowers on which these mites depend for nectar and pollen go extinct.
In fact, according to this study, if you add up all the affiliate species that are expected to go extinct if the species on the endangered list goes extinct, you’re looking at an additional sixty- three-hundred endangered species.
This important to know as we try to focus conservation efforts, especially since some species have more affiliate species that others. The army ant, for example, is host to over one hundred affiliate organisms, ranging from beetles and mites to ant birds. These kinds of species are keystone species in an evolutionary sense, and so are extremely important from a conservation standpoint.
Even if coextinction isn’t the main reason for species extinction, it certainly is an insidious process that we can’t afford to ignore.