A new study has found that bird species with some extreme or unusual combinations of traits face the greatest risk of extinction.

A new study led by researchers at Imperial College London finds that the most unique birds on the planet are also the most threatened.

The loss of these species and the unique roles they play in the environment, such as seed dispersal, pollination and predation, could have serious consequences for ecosystem functioning.

The study analyzed the extinction risk and physical attributes (such as beak shape and wing length) of 99% of all living bird species, making it the most comprehensive study of its kind to date.

“The functioning of ecosystems will be dramatically disrupted”

“Our study shows that extinctions will most likely cut a large portion of the unique species in the avian tree. The loss of these unique species will mean a loss of the specialized roles they play in ecosystems. If we don’t take action to protect threatened species and avoid extinctions, the functioning of ecosystems will be dramatically disrupted,” explained Jarome Ali, a PhD student at Princeton University and lead author of the research.

In the study, the authors used a dataset of measurements collected from live birds and museum specimens, totaling 9,943 bird species. The measurements included physical traits – the size and shape of the beak, as well as the length of wings, tails and legs.

The authors combined morphological data with extinction risk based on the current threat status of each species. They then ran simulations of what would happen if the most threatened birds disappeared.

The link between bird uniqueness and extinction risk

Although the dataset used in the study was able to show that the most unique birds were also classified as threatened on the Red List, it was unable to show the link between bird uniqueness and extinction risk, they write EurekAlert.

“One possibility is that highly specialized organisms are less able to adapt to a changing environment, in which case human impact can directly threaten species with the most unusual ecological roles. More research is needed to deepen the link between unique traits and extinction risk.”

The findings are published in the journal Functional Ecology.

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