Rare Birds Get All The Attention They Deserve, Thanks To New Approach To Species Conservation

By Shweta Iyer on April 10, 2014 3:39 PM EDT

rare bird
As more and more species of birds are on the verge of extinction, biologists are relying on new and improved methods of conservation. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

As more and more species of birds are on the verge of extinction, biologists are relying on new and improved methods of conservation. One such method has been developed by a group of Yale scientists that takes into account the geographic and genetic rarity of species of birds and can be applied to all known avian species. The paper will be published April 10 in Current Biology.

Walter Jetz, the Yale evolutionary biologist who is lead author of the paper says, "To date, conservation has emphasized the number of species, treating all species as equal. But not all species are equal in their genetic or geographic rarity. We provide a framework for how such species information could be used for prioritizing conservation."

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Birds are an integral part of the ecosystem and provide rich diversity to the planet. Manmade activities of deforestation, use of pesticides, etc. have put more than 600 species of birds in the threatened lists worldwide. Conserving birds that are rare, in terms of their genetic makeup and geography is especially challenging since they may not be found in areas that are already being protected due to species diversity. Such birds may be highly endangered yet remain poorly understood and may be frequently overlooked by existing conservation models.

The Yale researchers have worked around this problem by taking into account a standard, called evolutionary distinctiveness (ED), a quantitative measure of the species uniqueness' in terms of genetics and evolution. This metric helps conservationists prioritize which birds most deserve attention.

Every species is given the ED score. For example, the Oilbird that evolved almost 80 million years ago and is quite distinct to other species of birds, has a high evolutionary distinctiveness. Birds that have evolved more recently or have many common relatives have a low evolutionary distinctiveness. 

Jetz and his team took into account the geographic habitats of all 9,993 species of birds and assigned evolutionary distinctiveness ratings to them. The results revealed areas where maximum conservation of bird diversity can be achieved with minimal investment, according to researchers. Among the targeted areas for future conservation are regions of Australia,

Indonesia, Brazil, and Madagascar. The new approach has already been hailed as path breaking by conservationists.

The Zoological Society of London's EDGE of existence program is a conservation initiative that focuses on species that are 'Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE)', such as those identified in this paper. This new quantitative method of identifying birds that require immediate attention will give the EDGE of existence program a stronger framework for its fundraising and avian conservation efforts, according to Jetz and co-author Arne Mooers from Simon Fraser University, who have worked closely with ZSL for the last five years.

Jetz also leads the The Map of Life Project (mol.org) that shows the location and distributions for evolutionary distinct species all over the world.

"In addition to targeted conservation, better monitoring of species' changing distributions is vital, and geographical conservation priorities can be effectively adjusted to better conserve the tree of life and the many important functions it provides," said, Jetz.

Jetz research is an important stepping stone to develop more such conservation models, which combine genetic and geographic information effectively with minimum expenditure for the conservation of the world's animals or plants.

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