Earth’s most unique birds are also the most likely to go extinct

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From flying hummingbirds to colorful toucans to dancing sage-grouse, birds remind us of the remarkable abundance and diversity of life on our planet. They appear on every continent, thriving in landscapes as varied as their colorful plumages.

But biodiversity loss and climate change threaten to rob this living tapestry of its richness. A new scientific study has found that birds with distinctive shapes and sizes are most likely to be lost, reports Marion Renault for the New York Times.

In many cases, charismatic species are more sensitive to habitat loss than their more pedestrian counterparts. Indeed, they have evolved unique body types and other adaptations to thrive in a very specific and often cramped landscape. Think of all those unique finches that Darwin identified during his exploration of the Galapagos – how each developed distinctive characteristics to best adapt to their environment and available food sources.

When iconic creatures like these face destructive human development or deforestation, even small changes to their habitats can be devastating. Birds around the world are being affected, with species like the Sulu’s onyx-billed hornbill, the imposing white-bellied heron and the mischievous Seychelles scops-owl all on the brink of extinction.

Ornithologist Eliot Miller has warned that at the current rate of extinction, we are racing towards a “really simple, brown and boring” world.

But there are even more serious consequences to losing the most interesting creatures on Earth. Distinct bird species play specialized roles in healthy and stable ecosystems – pollinating plants, dispersing seeds that can regenerate forests, controlling pests, and building nests and burrows that also benefit many other organisms. When we lose them, “the ecosystem collapses,” Miller said.

Protecting unique wildlife often requires unique solutions. A new tool developed by Conservation International is helping to provide a clear picture of where species are most at risk of extinction and to guide conservation action to protect them. Using satellite data and wildlife surveys from around the world, a team of scientists created the Species Threat Abatement and Restoration (STAR) metric, which identifies the types of human activities most harmful to wildlife and where they occur.

Each species – of birds, mammals and reptiles – receives a “STAR score”. The higher the score, the higher the risk of extinction of the species. For example, using the tool, scientists found that James’ sportive lemur – a critically endangered primate found in Madagascar – has a STAR score of 400, the highest possible on the scale. Meanwhile, the STAR score for the Saint Helena plover – a species of tropical bird – would have been 400 if it had been measured in 2015, but thanks to the sustainable management of its habitat, its score is now 200. .

“By determining which activities harm a species, we also know which actions we should avoid in order to protect it,” said Conservation International scientist Neil Cox, who helped create the STAR metric. “Armed with this information, local conservationists can identify and use the most effective techniques to protect these species.”

Read the full article here.

Will McCarry is the editor of Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up to receive updates by email here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Keeled Toucan, Panama (© tzooka)


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