Birds could all end up with large beaks and indistinct plumage – as climate change threatens to wipe out species with more ‘extreme’ characteristics
- Birds with ‘extreme’ characteristics are more at risk of extinction due to climate change
- Scientists have found that biodiversity loss in birds is likely to happen faster than expected
- The species also develop larger beaks to help maintain their body temperature.
- Findings reveal we could be losing species with unique traits beneficial to humans
Soon you may not be able to tell your pigeon from your parrot, as climate change threatens to wipe out birds with more extreme physical characteristics.
New research from the University of Sheffield suggests they are adapting to global warming by developing large beaks and losing distinctive features.
Scientists have found that the world’s smallest and largest birds are probably the most at risk of extinction.
They also found that diversity loss could occur faster than expected based on species loss alone.
This could lead to the extinction of birds with unique traits that could benefit humans.
Lead author Dr Emma Hughes said: ‘As species disappear, you would expect the traits they represent to be lost as well.
“But what we found was that with morphological diversity, traits were lost at a much, much, much higher rate than just species loss could predict.
“It’s really important because it can lead to a major loss of ecological strategies and functions.”
The stork-billed kingfisher (pictured) is found in tropical regions of Southeast Asia, an area at risk of biodiversity loss due to climate change, the study finds
Scientists have found that the world’s smallest and largest birds are probably the most at risk of extinction. Ostriches are the largest living bird in the world (photo)
MAMMALS ALSO CHANGE FORM
Mammalian species are also undergoing noticeable changes, according to researchers from Australia’s Deakin University.
While most studies of the effects of climate change on mammals have focused on overall body size, some researchers have observed changes in particular appendages.
For example, wood mice develop longer tails, while masked shrews develop larger tails and legs.
Bats have also increased the size of their ears, tails, legs and wings as the temperature warmed.
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The study, published today in Current Biology, describes how the team analyzed the physical characteristics, such as body size, beak shape and leg and wing length, of 8,455 species of birds from around the world from museum collections.
They then modeled how biodiversity would change in a world where species currently classified as “critically endangered”, “endangered” and “vulnerable” disappeared, sequentially removing species from those that are at most or least threatened with extinction.
They found that as the species became extinct, the diversity of their physical characteristics decreased and they tended to have small to medium body sizes and short beaks.
The size and shape of the birds vary enormously – from the giant flightless ostrich to the tiny buzzing hummingbird.
Dr Hughes said: “We find strong evidence to support the hypothesis that the largest and smallest species are likely to be most at risk of extinction.”
Like humans, birds are warm-blooded and therefore need to maintain a higher body temperature than their surroundings.
The researchers also discovered that the birds develop larger beaks to help them maintain a constant temperature when the climate changes.
Parrot beaks, for example, have grown by as much as ten percent in the 150 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
The results of the study revealed that species with extreme characteristics like unique plumage are most likely to be lost due to the effects of climate change. Pictured are black and red broadbills, which live in Cambodia – an area at risk of biodiversity loss in birds
Some regions are more likely to end up with populations of bird species that look alike, as their extreme characteristics are gradually suppressed. Pictured is the Siberian bluebird
The study found that certain regions are more likely to end up with populations of bird species that look alike, as their extreme traits are gradually eliminated.
Bird researcher Dr Hughes said: ‘The mountains and foothills of the Himalayas are particularly at risk, and the loss of trait diversity is likely to be considerable.
“The dry and humid forests of southern Vietnam and Cambodia are also vulnerable.
“They include Siberian bluebirds, stork-billed kingfisher, black-and-red broadbill, and eastern paradise flycatcher.”
The team hopes their work will help people understand how biodiversity loss will change the world.
She added: “The global extinction crisis doesn’t just mean we’re losing species.
“This means we are losing unique traits and evolutionary history, including species that could bestow unique benefits on humanity that are currently unknown.”
Future warming threatens marine life in more than 70% of the most biodiverse areas of the oceans
More than 70% of the most biodiverse areas of the Earth’s oceans are threatened by climate change.
Researchers determined where species would need to move in order to find habitable space amid warming oceans.
They used a new technique to compare past and future extremes of ocean warming, which allowed them to map global exposure to future climate change and determine the distances species would have to travel to find better climatic conditions.
“Our research shows that places with exceptionally high marine biodiversity are most at risk from future ocean warming, making them particularly vulnerable to 21st century climate change,” said lead author Dr Stuart Brown of the University of Adelaide Institute of the Environment.
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Some of Earth’s most biodiverse ocean areas are under threat from climate change, new research reveals. Left: A caretta caretta Right: gray reef sharks and blacktip sharks