Most Unique Birds on the Planet at Higher Risk of Extinction: Studying 99% of all living bird species

Most Unique Birds on the Planet at Higher Risk of Extinction: Studying 99% of all living bird species

Agami Heron (Agamia agami). Credit: Joe Tobias

A new study finds that bird species with extreme or unusual combinations of traits are at the highest risk of extinction. The results are published in the journal functional ecology.

A new study led by researchers at Imperial College London finds that the world’s most unique birds are also among 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 serious consequences for ecosystem functioning.

The study analyzed the risk of extinction and physical characteristics (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-threatened bird species become extinct, physical (or morphological) diversity among birds decreases significantly more than in scenarios in which extinctions occur randomly.

Bird species that are both morphologically unique and threatened include the Christmas frigatebird (Fregata andrewsi), which nests only on Christmas Island, and the curlew (Numenius tahitiensis), which migrates from its breeding grounds in Alaska to the South Pacific islands each year .

The planet's most unique birds are on the verge of extinction

Blyth’s Kingfisher (Alcedo Hercules). Credit: Joe Tobias

Jarome Ali, a Princeton University doctoral student who completed the research at Imperial College London and was the lead author of the research, said: “Our study shows that extinction will most likely prune a large proportion of unique species from the bird world due to the loss of these.” unique species means a loss of the specialized role they play in ecosystems.

“If we don’t take action to protect threatened species and prevent extinction, ecosystem functioning will be dramatically disrupted.”

In the study, the authors used a dataset of measurements collected from live birds and museum specimens, totaling 9943 bird species. Measurements included physical characteristics such as beak size and shape, and the lengths of wings, tails, and legs.

The authors combined the morphological data with the risk of extinction based on the current threat 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 unique birds are on the verge of extinction

Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis). Credit: Joe Tobias

Although the dataset used in the study was able to show that the most unique birds were also classified as threatened on the Red List, it failed to show how uniqueness of birds is linked to risk of extinction.

Jarome Ali said: “One possibility is that highly specialized organisms are less able to adapt to a changing environment, in which case human impacts could directly threaten species with the most unusual ecological roles. Further research is needed to delve deeper into the link between unique traits and extinction risk.”

More information:
Jarome Ali et al., Bird extinction threatens to cause disproportionate reduction in functional diversity and uniqueness, functional ecology (2022). DOI: 10.1111/1365-2435.14201

Provided by the British Ecological Society

Quote: Planet’s Most Unique Birds at Higher Risk of Extinction: Study of 99% of All Living Bird Species (2022, November 24), retrieved November 24, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-11-planet-unique-birds -higher-extinction.html

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