Factors Threatening Species

Species are threatened with extinction primarily because of habitat destruction. Species are also driven to extinction when their habitat is degraded to the point where they can no longer exist. This might happen when a grassland is heavily grazed by domestic animals, a forest is repeatedly logged, or uncontrolled fires burn shrub land. Fully 81 percent of the endangered species of the United States are threatened by habitat degradation and loss. Species are also lost from habitats fragmented by human activity, when habitats are broken up into smaller pieces by roads, fences, power lines, residential areas, and ranches. The remaining fragments may be so altered in micro-climate, and so much more vulnerable to other human activities, that many plant species are no longer able to survive.

The second most significant threat to species diversity is competition and predation from exotic invasive species, which is a threat for 57 percent of the endangered plant species of the United States. In many cases, exotic species of animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, rabbits, and pigs selectively remove certain native plant species. For example, pigs introduced in Hawaii have removed all wild individuals of numerous plant species. Invasive exotic plants have often overwhelmed natural communities and outcompeted the native species. For example, in bottomland communities of the southern United States, Japanese honeysuckle plants have replaced the rich wildflower predation the act of preying upon; consuming for food

compound a substance formed from two or more elements mutualism a symbiosis between two organisms in which both benefit

compound a substance formed from two or more elements mutualism a symbiosis between two organisms in which both benefit communities, and in the rangeland of the western United States European grasses outcompete native grasses and wildflowers. As a result, native species decline at the expense of the introduced species.

Overharvesting of plants, often for food, medicinal purposes, or by horticulturists, threatens 10 percent of the endangered plant species of the United States. A notable example is ginseng, an herb used in Asian medicine, which has been so overharvested throughout its range that only a small number of plants remain. Many rare wildflowers, such as orchids, have been so severely overcollected by gardeners that they are in danger of extinction in the wild. Information on the location of the last remaining plants is often kept secret to prevent the theft of these individuals.

Pollution threatens 7 percent of the plant species of the United States. Water pollution can alter the water chemistry so severely that aquatic plants cannot grow. Increased inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus compounds into the water from sewage and agricultural fertilizers can result in algal blooms that shade out and kill native plants. In the land environment air pollution in the form of smog, acid rain, and nitrogen deposition can cause plants to slow down in growth or die. In some cases, this death may be related to the decline and death of the sensitive soil fungi (mycorrhizae) that have mutu-alistic relations with plants, providing water and mineral nutrients and receiving carbohydrates in return. And lastly, about 1 percent of plant species is threatened by disease and parasites. While this number may not seem very great, some of the most important woody plants in the forests of North America, such as chestnuts, elms, and dogwoods, are in severe decline due to introduced diseases.

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