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Birds could rapidly lose the traits that make them unique

Climate change is causing a mass extinction that has not been seen in recorded history. For birds, this biodiversity loss has implications beyond species extinction risks.

New research published by Cell Press has found that the loss of numerous bird species will decrease morphological diversity among the remaining birds at a rate greater than species loss alone.

The study reveals which birds could be lost, and the regions most susceptible to homogenization. Emma Hughes, a bird researcher at the University of Sheffield, has spent her career examining broad morphological traits in birds.

“I began to wonder what will happen with global change. So, not only how traits are currently distributed globally, but what might happen to morphological and phylogenetic diversity under the global extinction crisis,” said Hughes.

“As species go extinct you expect the traits that they represent to also be lost. But what we found was that with morphological diversity, the traits were lost at a much, much, much greater rate than just species loss could predict. This is really important because that can lead to a major loss of ecological strategies and functions.”

Diversity loss is most likely to affect birds with extreme features. The size and shape of birds are widely variable, ranging from the giant, flightless ostrich to the tiny hummingbird. The study suggests these types of birds have the greatest risk of extinction. 

“We do find strong evidence to support the hypothesis that the largest and smallest species are likely to be most at risk of extinction,” said Hughes.

With climate change, certain regions are also more likely to be left with homogenized populations. 

“The Himalayan mountains and foothills are at particular risk, and it’s likely that the loss of trait diversity will be considerable,” said Hughes. “The dry and moist forests of south Vietnam and Cambodia are also vulnerable.”

The researchers are hopeful that their work will help people understand how biodiversity loss will change the world. 

“The global extinction crisis doesn’t just mean that we’re losing species. It means that we are losing unique traits and evolutionary history, including species that could confer unique benefits to humanity that are currently unknown.”

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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