May 19, 2017 is Endangered Species Day, an annual celebration of biodiversity and the nation’s conservation efforts to protect vulnerable species and their habitats.

Scientists estimate that 99.9 percent of all species that have ever lived were pushed to extinction by natural changes in physical and biological conditions.

But over the last 500 years, humans have caused a rapid loss of species that far exceeds the natural rates of extinction. Human activities such as logging, agriculture and climate change have altered natural landscapes and destroyed the ecosystems on which some species depend. In 1973, congress passed the Endangered Species Act to protect the nation’s native plants and animals in danger of going extinct by restoring populations and preserving their habitats.

For Endangered Species Day, we celebrate the many University of Utah scientists who research endangered, threatened or vulnerable plants, animals and ecosystems in the United States and around the world. 

PHOTO CREDIT: Thomas Kursar

A view of the rainforest in Panama. Rainforests around the world are threatened from logging, cattle and climate change.

“We work in rainforests around the world, which are threatened from logging, cattle and climate change. Our basic research focuses on plant defenses, which ended up having the unexpected application to conservation and medicine. We established a drug discovery program in Panama, and have discovered numerous plant toxins with anti-cancer and anti-malarial activities, and have created more jobs in Panama than logging, providing an incentive to protect the forest.” — professor Phyllis Coley on her and professor Thomas Kursar’s research group in the Department of Biology

PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Dvorak via Wikicommons

The Mangrove Finch is the most severely threatened species of Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands.

“My lab works on the impact of an invasive parasitic fly on Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos islands. The fly has already devastated two species of endangered Darwin’s finches. However, our research shows that even a small reduction in the prevalence of the fly — through human intervention and management — could alleviate the extinction risk.” — Dale Clayton, professor in the Department of Biology

PHOTO CREDIT: Jeremy Pillow

The ant Adelomyrmex anxiocalor, which means “fearing heat.”

“I named this ant species Adelomyrmex anxiocalor, which means “fearing heat.” This ant is only found on the very top of a single mountain in Honduras, called Sierra de Agalta. It’s not on any official endangered species list, but there is no higher part of the mountain where it can go when climate warms, so it will almost certainly face extinction when its climate zone disappears.” — Jack Longino, professor in the Department of Biology.

PHOTO CREDIT: Cagan H. Sekercioglu

The Lappet-faced vulture.

“Say you have a carcass. Most often the first vulture that will arrive on the carcass is an endangered lappet-faced vulture. It’s the largest, toughest vulture in East Africa. It has the largest, gnarliest bill of any vultures. They’re the only vulture able to rip through hide and they specialize on feeding on hide and tendons. So they usually find the carcass first and they can tear into it and open it up.” — Evan Buechley on his and professor Cagan Sekercioglu’s research in the Department of Biology.

PHOTO CREDIT: Simeon Innocent

Chimpanzees are one of our closest living relatives.


“Chimpanzees and bonobos are our closest living relatives, sharing about 98 percent of our DNA. They are highly social mammals and can live up to 50 years old. They are also very resourceful, using tools to help them eat. Despite our close relations, chimpanzees and bonobos are still under constant threat from habitat destruction, hunting and disease.  My lab conducts genetic studies of chimpanzees in Senegal, Nigeria and parts of east Africa to evaluate how current threats impact genetic diversity.” — Leslie Ann Knapp, professor and chair in the Department of Anthropology.