WASHINGTON (AP) — Even the king cobra is “vulnerable.” More than one in five reptile species worldwide are at risk of extinction, according to a comprehensive new assessment of thousands of species published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Of 10,196 reptile species analyzed, 21% were classified as endangered, critically endangered or vulnerable to extinction – including the iconic hooded snakes of South and Southeast Asia.
“This work is a very significant achievement – it adds to our knowledge of where endangered species are and where we need to work to protect them,” said Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm, who is not did not participate in the study.
Previous similar assessments had been conducted for mammals, birds and amphibians, informing government decisions on how to demarcate national parks and allocate environmental funds.
Work on the reptile study – which involved nearly 1,000 scientists and 52 co-authors – began in 2005. The project was slowed by fundraising difficulties, said co-author Bruce Young, zoologist at the non-profit science organization NatureServe.
“There’s a lot more focus on furry and feathered vertebrate species for conservation,” Young said, lamenting the perceived charisma gap. But reptiles are also fascinating and essential to ecosystems, he said.
The Galapagos marine iguana, the world’s only lizard adapted to marine life, is listed as “vulnerable” to extinction, said co-author Blair Hedges, a biologist at Temple University. It took 5 million years for the lizard to adapt to foraging in the sea, he said, lamenting “how much evolutionary history can be lost if this one species” goes extinct.
Six of the world’s sea turtle species are threatened. The seventh is probably also in trouble, but scientists lack the data to make a classification.
Worldwide, the greatest threat to reptile life is habitat destruction. Hunting, invasive species and climate change also pose threats, said co-author Neil Cox, head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Biodiversity Assessment Unit.
Reptiles that live in forest areas, such as the king cobra, are more likely to face extinction than desert dwellers, in part because forests face greater human disturbance, the study found.