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World’s first rank­ing of evo­lu­tion­ary dis­tinct birds

pub­lished 12 April 2014 | mod­i­fied 12 April 2014

KakapoA team of inter­na­tional sci­en­tists, includ­ing a trio from Simon Fraser Uni­ver­sity (SFU), has pub­lished the world’s first rank­ing of evo­lu­tion­ary dis­tinct birds under threat of extinc­tion. These include a cave-​dwelling bird that is so oily it can be used as a lamp and a bird that has claws on its wings and a stom­ach like a cow.

The research, pub­lished on 10 April in Cur­rent Biol­ogy, shows that Indone­sia, Aus­tralia and New Zealand all score high on respon­si­bil­ity for pre­serv­ing irre­place­able species. The researchers exam­ined nearly 10,000 bird species and iden­ti­fied more than 100 areas where addi­tional pro­tec­tion efforts would help safe­guard avian biodiversity.

We also found that if we pri­ori­tise threat­ened birds by their dis­tinct­ness, we actu­ally pre­serve very close to the max­i­mum pos­si­ble amount of evolution
Arne Moo­ers, lead author, Depart­ment of Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences, Simon Fraser University »

“We used genetic data to iden­tify the bird species that have the fewest rel­a­tives on the ‘Tree of Life’, that is, which species score high­est on the ‘evo­lu­tion­ary dis­tinct­ness’ index,” explains Arne Moo­ers, one of the six authors of a study that was seven years in the making.

The index was cre­ated by for­mer SFU PhD stu­dent Dave Red­ding, another one of the SFU trio, and was applied to an updated ver­sion of the first global tree of birds, pub­lished in 2012 by the group in Nature.

The researchers, led by Moo­ers and Wal­ter Jetz at Yale Uni­ver­sity, com­bined the index with data on extinc­tion risk and maps of where every bird in the world lives. The result is a snap­shot of how the entire Tree of Life of birds is dis­trib­uted on the planet, and where on earth the tree is most at risk of being lost. “Given that we can­not save all species from extinc­tion, these dis­tinct species are of spe­cial con­ser­va­tion con­cern, since they are truly irre­place­able — they have no close rel­a­tives that share their DNA,” Moo­ers says.

Jeff Joy, another SFU team mem­ber, adds: “Many of these dis­tinct species are also incred­i­bly cool – the number-​one bird lives in caves and is so oily you can use it as a lamp, the num­ber three-​bird has claws on its wings and a stom­ach like a cow, while still another, the Abbott’s Booby, breeds only on Christ­mas Island.”

Doc­u­men­tary on con­ser­va­tion efforts in Ari­zona to bring back the Cal­i­for­nia Con­dors, no 3 on the EDGE list, from the brink of extinc­tion to the brink of recov­ery:

(Source: Ari­zona Game­And­Fish YouTube channel)

Map­ping where dis­tinct species are on the planet also gives insight into which areas and coun­tries stew­ard dis­pro­por­tion­ate amounts of bird evo­lu­tion. The data also offer some insight into large-​scale processes affect­ing bio­di­ver­sity, Moo­ers says.

“We also found that if we pri­ori­tise threat­ened birds by their dis­tinct­ness, we actu­ally pre­serve very close to the max­i­mum pos­si­ble amount of evo­lu­tion,” says Moo­ers. “This means our method can iden­tify those species we can­not afford to lose and it can be used to pre­serve the infor­ma­tion con­tent rep­re­sented by all species into the future. Both are major goals for con­ser­va­tion biology.”

The new rank­ings will be used in a major con­ser­va­tion ini­tia­tive called the Edge of Exis­tence pro­gramme of the Zoo­log­i­cal Soci­ety of Lon­don (ZSL), which was launched in Jan­u­ary 2007. ZSL has already iden­ti­fied sev­eral species like the huge monkey-​eating Philip­pine eagle that are at once dis­tinct, endan­gered, and suf­fer from lack of attention.

(Source: Simon Fraser Uni­ver­sity media release, 10.04.2014)

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