We're About To Lose A Ton Of Animals — And Whales Will Go First

"The bigger you are, the more likely you are to be facing extinction."

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"The bigger you are, the more likely you are to be facing extinction," says Jonathan Payne, paleobiologist at Stanford University.

It's simply put, but this groundbreaking finding of Payne's just-published study shows that what's happening in our era, the sixth mass extinction in the history of our planet, is very different from what has happened before.

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While humans have pretty much always played a role in killing off the largest animals, like the wooly mammoth, for food, humans didn't have the resources to hunt at such a large scale in the oceans - until recently.

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"Marine systems have been spared up to now, because until relatively recently, humans were restricted to coastal areas and didn't have the technology to fish in the deep ocean on an industrial scale," Noel Heim, co-author of the study, says. "[W]hat is happening in the modern oceans is really different from what has happened in the past."

Engraving from the 19th century shows British whaling ships hunting sperm whales. | Steve Estvanik/Shutterstock

Payne and his team of researchers looked at the patterns of the previous five extinctions to predict what will happen in this one, which scientists said in 2014 had just begun. "This 'sixth mass extinction' may approach or exceed the magnitude of the five major extinctions of the past 550 million years," the paper, which appears in Science, says.

"We've found that extinction threat in the modern oceans is very strongly associated with larger body size," Payne says. "This is most likely due to people targeting larger species for consumption first."

The results of the study add to the evidence that human beings are to blame for the sixth mass extinction, which threatens to obliterate 41 percent of all amphibian species, 26 percent of mammal species and 13 percent of bird species over the next 100 years.

Squid drying at massive fishing operation in Thailand | Shutterstock

Payne sees a positive note in the bleak findings, though. "We can't do much to quickly reverse the trends of ocean warming or ocean acidification, which are both real threats that must be addressed. But we can change treaties related to how we hunt and fish" he says. "We can turn this situation around relatively quickly."

That is, if we make an effort.

Learn what you can do to stop overfishing here.