Study 99% of all living bird species

The planet's most distinctive birds are at greater risk of extinction

Ajami Heron (Ajami Ajami). Credit: Joe Tobias

Bird species with extreme or uncommon combinations of traits face the highest risk of extinction, a new study finds. The results have been published in the journal functional ecology.

A new study led by researchers at Imperial College London finds that the most distinctive birds on the planet are also the most threatened. The loss of these species and the unique roles they play in the environment, such as seed dispersal, pollination and predation, could have severe consequences for the functioning of ecosystems.

The study analyzed the extinction risks and physical traits (such as beak shape and wing length) of 99% of all living bird species, making it the most comprehensive study of its kind to date.

The researchers found that in simulated scenarios in which all threatened and near-critical bird species became extinct, there would be a significant decrease in physical (or morphological) diversity among birds compared to scenarios in which the extinctions were random.

Both morphologically unique and threatened bird species include the Christmas Frigates (Fregata andrewsi), which nest only on Christmas Island, and the rough-legged Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis), which migrate from their breeding grounds in Alaska to the South Pacific islands each year. .

The planet's most distinctive birds are at greater risk of extinction

Blythe Kingfisher (Alcido’s Hercules). Credit: Joe Tobias

Jarumi Ali, Ph.D. A Princeton candidate who completed the research at Imperial College London and was the lead author of the paper said, “Our study shows that extinctions will likely result in the pruning of a large proportion of unique species from the bird tree. Losing these unique species will mean losing the specialized roles they play in ecosystems.”

“If we do not take action to protect threatened species and avoid extinctions, the functioning of ecosystems will be greatly disrupted.”

In the study, the authors used a data set of measurements collected from live birds and museum specimens, totaling 9,943 bird species. Measurements included physical features such as beak size and shape, and length of wings, tail, and legs.

The authors combined morphological data with risk of extinction, based on the current threatened status of each species on the IUCN Red List. Then they ran simulations of what would happen if the most threatened birds went extinct.

The planet's most distinctive birds are at greater risk of extinction

Rough-thighed curl (Nomenius tahitensis). Credit: Joe Tobias

Although the data set used in the study was able to show that the most unique birds were also classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List, it was unable to show what links uniqueness in birds with the risk of extinction.

Jaromy Ali said, “One possibility is that highly specialized organisms are less able to adapt to a changing environment, in which case human impacts may directly threaten species with more exotic ecological roles. More research is needed to delve deeper into the relationship between traits and risk.” extinction.”

more information:
Jarum Ali et al., Avian extinction threatens to cause disproportionate declines in functional diversity and uniqueness, functional ecology (2022). DOI: 10.1111/1365-2435.14201

Provided by the British Environmental Society

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