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The World’s First Ranking Tracks Birds’ Evolutionary Distinctness


A research team including three scientists from Simon Fraser University has released the first ranking of evolutionary distinct birds on the edge of extinction in the world. On such list, there is a cave-dwelling bird whose oil could be used as a lamp and a bird with claws on its wings and a stomach just like a cow.

Published in the latest edition of Current Biology, the research demonstrates that Australia, Indonesia and New Zealand are the countries scoring high in terms of their responsibility for protecting the irreplaceable species in their areas.

The group of scientists examined nearly 10,000 bird species and identified that additional protection efforts should be made in more than 100 areas so as to help preserve the avian biodiversity all over the world.

Arne Moors, biologist at Simon Fraser University, one of the six authors of the study lasting for seven years explained that they resorted to genetic data for identification of the bird species which are regarded to have the fewest relatives on the ‘Tree of Life’, that is, which species are on the top in the ‘evolutionary distinctness’ index.

Such index was first established by Dave Redding, former PhD student at Simon Fraser University and then was applied to the latest version of the first global tree of birds, published by the same group of scientists in Nature in 2012.

The research team led by Mooers and Walter Jetz at Yale University, has combined the index with data showing the extinction risk as well as maps indicating the existence of every bird in the world. The result from their research provides a quick glimpse of how the Tree of Life of birds is located on Earth, and where the tree is most likely to be at extinction risk on our planet.

As Mooers put it, if we are unable to save all species from being lost, we should give special conservation concern to these distinct species, because they are really irreplaceable and they have no close relatives to share their DNA at all.

Jeff Joy, another member of the team from Simon Fraser University added that many of such distinct species are also incredibly cool — the first bird living in caves is so oily that people could use it as a lamp, the second one is the bird with claws on its wings and a stomach just like a cow, and the third bird is called as the Abbott’s Booby, which breeds only on Christmas Island.

To map out the location of the distinct species on Earth could help illustrate in which areas and countries the disproportionate amounts of bird evolution was stewarded. Such information could also give some insight into the large-scale processes which would impact on biodiversity.

In summarizing their research, Mooers said that they also found that if people could prioritize threatened birds by their distinctness, they could actually preserve very close to the maximum possible amount of evolution. By the means of their method, people could identify those species unaffordable to lose and such method could be applied in regard to preservation of the information content represented by all species into the future. That is what conservation biology is targeting on.

The newly developed rankings will be tried in the conservation project known as the EDGE of Existence program at the London Zoo. The zoo has already identified several species, such as the huge monkey-eating Philippine eagle and these species need to be given special attention, because they are at once distinct and endangered.

Source:  Simon Fraser University

Image credit: © Pinosub / Fotolia

Journal Reference:

  1. Walter Jetz, Gavin H. Thomas, Jeffrey B. Joy, David W. Redding, Klaas Hartmann, Arne O. Mooers. Global Distribution and Conservation of Evolutionary Distinctness in BirdsCurrent Biology, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.03.011