Asteroids destroying life on Earth were popular movie fare this summer, but

pollution and habitat destruction are killing species even faster than an

asteroid did millions of years ago, a UT ecologist said.

Daniel Simberloff, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said

scientists believe a giant asteroid hit Earth more than 75 million years

ago, killing the dinosaurs in one of the largest mass extinctions in

history.

"But geological records show that the extinction triggered by the event

occurred much slower than the rate at which species are disappearing

today," he said.

"From fossil evidence we know that many species persisted for centuries

after the meteorite hit," said Simberloff. "You can look at the layer of

the element Iridium that was left by the meteorite. Above that layer are

remains of species that survived and didn't die out for millions of years.

Today we are seeing this same volume of extinction happening in every

century or so."

Simberloff, who holds the Nancy Gore-Hunger Chair of Excellence in

Environmental Studies at UT, said the greatest mass extinction occurred in

the Permian era some 230 million years ago over a period of 5 million

years.

"We are looking at something today that is incomparably faster than that,"

said Simberloff. "The current rate of species extinction is faster than

four of the five great mass extinctions that have been studied, and is at

least equal to the fifth."

"Past mass extinctions did not affect some habitats or regions of the

globe, but the current one is affecting species everywhere in the world,"

Simberloff said.

Simberloff said in East Tennessee, some freshwater habitats now teeming

fish and other species are likely to be devoid of life in the next

century.

"Freshwater habitats are in a lot of trouble," said Simberloff. "The major

rivers near Knoxville are all polluted. This is the norm in the United

States."

"We will be lucky if there are any wetlands, rivers, lakes and marshes here

100 years from now that can support living organisms."

Simberloff participated in a recent survey by New York's Museum of Natural

History, in which 400 of the world's top scientists rated species

extinction as one of the world's gravest environmental problems.

Among the general public, however, barely half rated species loss as a

major threat.

"The problem is that we can't prove it. We are not there when the last

individual of a species disappears," said Simberloff. "There are many

species whose ranges and habitats are so poorly known that they could

easily go extinct without our knowing it for decades."

"But there are many indirect lines of evidence that in my mind all point to

the conclusion that we really are at the beginning of a period of mass

extinction."