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The most unique birds face the highest extinction risk

A new study led by the Imperial College London (ICL) has found that bird species with extreme or unusual combinations of traits are currently facing the largest risk of extinction. Losing these species and the critical roles they play in the environment – such as seed dispersal, pollination, or predation – could have major negative consequences for the functioning of a variety of ecosystems.

The scientists analyzed how the physical attributes – such as beak shape and wing length – of 99 percent of all living bird species is correlated with their extinction risk. The investigation revealed that bird species which are morphologically unique – including species such as the Christmas Frigatebird (Fregata andrewsi), which nests only on Christmas Island, and the Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis), which migrates from its breeding grounds in Alaska to South Pacific islands each year – face the highest risk of extinction.

“Our study shows that extinctions will most likely prune a large proportion of unique species from the avian tree. Losing these unique species will mean a loss of the specialized roles that they play in ecosystems,” said study lead author Jarome Ali, a PhD student at Princeton University who conducted this research during his graduate studies at ICL. “If we do not take action to protect threatened species and avert extinctions, the functioning of ecosystems will be dramatically disrupted.”

Although the scientists were able to show that the most unique types of birds are also the most endangered ones, they were still unable to clarify what links uniqueness in birds to extinction risk.

“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 the most unusual ecological roles. More research is needed to delve deeper into the connection between unique traits and extinction risk,” Ali concluded.

The study is published in the journal Functional Ecology.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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