We often hear of extinction in the context of animals, but plants can—and have—become extinct, too. In fact, a 2020 paper cited 65 plant species that have recently become extinct in the continental U.S. and Canada. Recently extinct tree species include the Valley Head hawthorn, the Fecund hawthorn, and the Lateleaf oak. Threats to trees are becoming increasingly common and extinction is a major concern; up to 135 tree species face extinction in the US alone.
What factors are behind this loss? The most significant threats to tree populations include invasive pests, climate change, and loss of habitat due to pressures such as deforestation. While climate change causes instability in ecosystems around the world, overharvesting trees exacerbates the damage.
Major causes of deforestation include “agricultural expansion, wood extraction (e.g., logging or wood harvest for domestic fuel or charcoal), and infrastructure expansion such as road building and urbanization,” but are often driven by more complex systems.
Together, these threats pose high extinction risks for tree species around the world—a danger not only for the trees themselves but for the habitats and ecosystem services they support.
Why Trees Are Important
The importance of trees is crucial on many levels. For one, tree biodiversity supports overall biodiversity. When a tree species dies out, it can take with it many other species that depended upon those trees for continued survival. Additionally, biodiversity loss is always a blow because of the possibly untapped potential of the species that disappear.
Tree extinction also creates a decline in the essential ecosystem services that trees provide. They produce oxygen, sequester carbon, strengthen soil against erosion, and perform a wide variety of other crucial functions. Trees are one of our best allies in tackling climate change, and their loss is heavily felt.
Native tree species are also particularly important because of the character they bring to their region. Try to imagine Savannah, Georgia without its moss-draped oak trees, or the Redwood Forest without its towering trees. Tree extinction causes us to lose not only a piece of nature but a piece of our identity along the way.
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