A new study led by researchers at Imperial College London finds that the most unique birds on the planet 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 severe consequences to the functioning of ecosystems.
Jarome Ali, a PhD candidate at Princeton University who completed the research at Imperial College London explained:
“If we do not take action to protect threatened species and avert extinctions, the functioning of ecosystems will be dramatically disrupted.
“One possibility is that highly specialised 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.”
The study analysed the extinction risk and physical attributes (such as beak shape and wing length) of 99% of all living bird species, making it the most comprehensive study of its kind to date.
The researchers found that in simulated scenarios in which all threatened and near-threatened bird species became extinct, there would be a significantly greater reduction in the physical (or morphological) diversity among birds than in scenarios where extinctions were random.
Bird species that are both morphologically unique and threatened include 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 every year.
Click on this link to access Bird extinctions threaten to cause disproportionate reductions of functional diversity and uniqueness published in Functional Ecology.