The most impressive and exuberant birds are the first threatened with extinction – let’s stop nature getting boring

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For decades, ecologists have warned against the homogenization of diversity – species becoming more alike – in the living world. Now researchers from the University of Sheffield have published research predicting that bird species with striking and extreme traits are likely to go extinct first.

“The global extinction crisis doesn’t just mean we’re losing species,” says study leader Dr Emma Hughes. “That means we lose unique traits and an evolutionary history.”

This shows that human activity is not only drastically reducing the number of species, it is probably destroying the most unique, unusual and distinctive creatures on Earth disproportionately.

A bright blue kingfisher throws a fish in its beak. Photo: Andrew Brown/Solent News/Shutterstock

What would it mean to no longer share a planet with the toucan, and its big beak four times bigger than its head, even if you never see one in real life? Or the elegant Bengal florican, which looks like a walking treble clef. Or the iridescent hummingbird? Or the bird of paradise, with its rococo curled feathers?

Many of the potential impacts are unpredictable, but grim. As Hughes puts it, we are losing species that could “give humanity unique benefits that are presently unknown”. And we already know that the repercussions of species loss can be catastrophic.

The decline of vultures in India and the loss of their scavenging and scavenging niche has already had negative consequences for human populations, including the spread of disease.

Mandrill alpha in Central Africa.  Photo: Mogens Trolle
Mandrill alpha in Central Africa. Photo: Mogens Trolle

It will not only affect distant places with a higher number of unusual species. The extinction crisis will also lead to a loss of morphological diversity in Europe, notes Hughes. Unfortunately, the Atlantic Puffin, one of our most beloved seabirds, and other unique seabirds such as the Kittiwake and Leach’s Storm-Petrel are vulnerable.

The loss of a species is tragic, but we also face a decline in the species that humans command the most respect. In short, we can expect the world to get “really plain and brown and boring,” says Dr. Eliot Miller of Cornell’s Ornithology Lab. More sparrows, less puffins.

If you were captured by an alien and asked to explain why Earth shouldn’t be destroyed, what would you say? As much as I love small brown jobs, I would think of species so beautiful and unusual that you can hardly believe they are real.

A hovering hummingbird.  Photo: AP Photo/The Advocate, Travis Spradling)
A hovering hummingbird. Photo: AP Photo/The Advocate, Travis Spradling)

I told them about the mandrill with its bright blue and pink face and rump. I would tell them about the hornbills that seem to be balancing a banana on their head. I would mention the atlas butterfly which is as big as a human hand. The peacock jumping spider, the Christmas tree worm, the elf owl.

I would tell them about the curlew, with its extraordinary curved beak; the kingfisher hurtling down the river like a turquoise meteor; the blazing antlers of a deer. I told them about mountain gorillas, blue whales and golden eagles. Baobabs, frogs and diatoms. Toucans! We have toucans!

A male Red-knobbed Hornbill bringing food to his mate at their nest in Tangkoko Nature Reserve, Sulawesi, Indonesia.  Image: Rainforest - a photographic journey
A male Red-knobbed Hornbill bringing food to his mate at their nest in Tangkoko Nature Reserve, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Image: Rainforest – a photographic journey

It wouldn’t be hard to argue, because the exuberant diversity of life on Earth is its signature and its wonder.

Wonder is not just pleasant or a luxury. Scientists have shown that feeling fear has a measurable effect on human health. A University of Toronto study found that fear was the only positive emotion that could predict lower levels of unhealthy inflammation.

Fear can also affect how we treat others. People are more ethical, kind, and generous after experiencing awe, and despite our unprecedented estrangement from the non-human, we still get most of our experiences of awe from the living world.

All this focus on human emotions seems terribly anthropocentric and a minor issue, but humans are naturally curious – and curiosity thrives on variety and diversity. While denial about climate breakdown and extinction seems hard to shake off, could this new deepening of what the biodiversity crisis means – a less interesting world – be a stark warning?

A baby mountain gorilla in Uganda.  Photo: PA Photo/Renato Granieri
A baby mountain gorilla in Uganda. Photo: PA Photo/Renato Granieri

This latest research illustrates what the often hard-to-imagine biodiversity crisis looks like: a less resplendent, less vibrant world. It’s heartbreaking, yes, but galvanizing, and an opportunity for focus and pressure on those in power.

The vast majority of us don’t want to live in a world devoid of toucans and puffins. Or a boring world, or a dying world. So, would the politicians care to mention how they reconcile the myopic focus on “growth” with a depleted, exhausted Earth that clearly tells us to stop?

If we eliminate the species with the most unique traits and continue to destroy Earth’s rich diversity, we will all be impoverished in ways we cannot yet comprehend. Even though we never see a toucan in the wild, we are still their parents. Their savagery is still, in some way, part of us. We are still animals among animals.

  • Lucy Jones is a journalist and author of Lose Eden and nature’s seed
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