Family Tree Gives Clues to Next Endangered Bird Species

The recent completion of a new genetic family tree of the United Kingdom’s birds has thrown new light on attempts to assess which bird species might be most at risk of future endangerment. The family tree – or phylogenetic map – provides a clear depiction of how different species are related. It was compiled by Dr Gavin Thomas from the NERC Center for Population Biology, and when compared to existing lists of endangered bird species, Thomas found that most of the birds currently fighting for survival were grouped together on the same branches of the family tree.

The new insight could possibly help conservationists detect which birds might be next to suffer a massive decline and so set in motion preventative measures to avoid having even more species added to the list of endangered birds. Thomas’ research was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences on June 11 and has received quite a lot of attention. The population biologist from Imperial College London found that the British birds that were currently suffering a population decline were always clustered closely together on the same branches of the family tree. This is most likely because these species share a number of physical traits such as specific habitat requirements or low reproductive rates. Their limited ability to cope with changing environments then makes them exceptionally vulnerable when faced with a decline in habitat. Thomas has suggested that these findings can be used as a sort of early warning system for conservationists. However, he also feels that the ultimate decision regarding which birds merit the most attention should be based on a number different factors and not just the phylogenetic map.

Previously scientists and biologists have relied mainly on declining population numbers when trying to determine which species are most in need of conservation. They also look at the bird’s natural environment and try to determine if a particular geographical area is decreasing in size. This is known as ‘range contraction’. By combining all the information together, conservationists could definitely start to protect species that are in danger of suffering massive population decreases before their numbers dwindle too far. Examples of birds that may be at risk of future population declines include the greenfinch and the ptarmigan – both of which are not currently endangered but which are closely related to birds that are experiencing a severe decline in numbers.