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The rarest birds are the most threatened

Bird species with extreme or uncommon combinations of traits face the highest risk of extinction, according to a new study.The findings are published in the Journal of the British Ecological Society functional ecology.

A new study led by researchers at Imperial College London has found that the most unique birds on Earth are also the most threatened.

Losing 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 99 percent of living birds for extinction risk and physical attributes such as beak shape and wing length, making it the most comprehensive study of its kind to date.

The researchers found that in all simulated scenarios of extinction of threatened and near-threatened bird species, the reduction in physical or morphological diversity of birds was much greater than in scenarios of random extinction.

Morphologically distinctive and threatened birds include the Christmas frigatebird (warship andruss), which only nest on Christmas Island, and the maned sandpiper (tahitian god), migrate annually from their breeding grounds in Alaska to the South Pacific islands.

Jarome Ali, a PhD candidate at Princeton University, completed research at Imperial College London and is the lead author of the study

He said: “Our research shows that extinction is likely to remove most of the unique species from the bird tree. Losing these unique species will mean losing the special role they play in the ecosystem.

“If we do not act to protect threatened species and avoid extinction, the functioning of ecosystems will be severely disrupted.”


For the study, the authors used a dataset of measurements collected from extant bird and museum specimens, totaling 9,943 bird species. Measurements include physical characteristics such as beak size and shape, and wing, tail and leg length.

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

Although the data set used in the study was able to show that the most unique birds were also listed as threatened on the Red List, it could not show what link existed between a bird’s uniqueness and risk of extinction.

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

the author

Brendan Montague is ecologist. This article is based on a press release from the British Ecological Society.

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