Complete 'family tree' of all British birds gives clues about which species might be endangered next

June 11, 2008
Complete 'family tree' of all British birds gives clues about which species might be endangered next
The greenfinch may be at risk of decline, because its close relatives, the linnet and bullfinch, are already struggling

A new complete evolutionary 'family tree' showing how all British bird species are related to each other may provide clues about which ones are at risk of population decline, according to new research published today (11 June) in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Comparing the new family tree with existing lists of endangered bird species, author Dr Gavin Thomas from the NERC Centre for Population Biology at Imperial College London found that British birds currently suffering population decline were clustered close together on the same branches of the family tree.

Because of this the family tree, or 'phylogeny', could be used to predict which species are at risk of decline in the future. Bird species which are not experiencing decline at the moment, but which sit close to species that are declining on the family tree, may be at risk next. This is because closely related species on the family tree share physical traits. Some of these traits such as low reproductive rates or specific habitat requirements may render them less able to cope with climate change or depletion of their habitat and make them exceptionally vulnerable to decline.

Declining population numbers is one of the main criteria used by scientists to assess which species are of high conservation concern. Another important way of measuring conservation concerns is assessing whether the geographical area inhabited by a species is decreasing – a condition known as 'range contraction'. This study showed no link between closeness on the family tree and incidence of range contraction, so scientists will need to use additional information to create a full picture of which birds have conservation needs in the UK.

Dr Thomas explains, however, that the family tree could be used to provide vital clues to which species need to be protected from population decline: "This study threw up some interesting results," he said. "Numbers of the common blackbird are currently not perceived as threatened at all, however it has several close relatives, including the song thrush, that are experiencing severe levels of population decline. This could mean that populations of blackbirds in the UK are at risk of declining in the future."

Dr Thomas suggests that the family tree can be an early warning for conservationists, because if species close to those on the phylogeny that are already endangered share traits with the endangered species, they too may be at risk of decline in the future.

Dr Thomas concludes: "Pulling together the family tree was an important task as we now have a clearer insight than ever before into the evolutionary relationships of birds in Britain. The data clearly shows a link between closely related birds and chances of population decline which could be useful for conservationists, although they will always need to take other factors, such as range contraction, into account."

The family tree, or 'phylogeny', covers over 93% of British birds. Examples of birds which may be at risk of population decline in the future, based on their close relationship to other endangered birds include:

-- The greenfinch – not currently endangered but closely related to the linnet and bullfinch which are currently experiencing severe levels of decline

-- The ptarmigan – not currently endangered but closely related to the black grouse and grey partridge which are currently experiencing severe levels of decline

Source: Imperial College London

Explore further: Scientists urge ban on salamander imports to fend off deadly fungus

Related Stories

The truth about sharks

July 28, 2015

Danger: shark attack (or more properly, say scientists, shark bite). With sharks swimming ever closer to shore this summer—or seeming to—and crossing paths with surfers and bathers, what's going on?

The role of species competition in biodiversity

July 7, 2015

(Phys.org)—Over long spans, biodiversity is a fluid and shifting balance of species and influences. Species diversification occurs in response to a host of complex factors, both biotic and abiotic, and understanding them ...

Silent extinctions on coral reefs

June 25, 2015

There is a ray of hope in the face of dire predictions about the future of coral reefs, with the prospect that species can shift their distribution ranges to survive climate change.

Recommended for you

Magnetism at nanoscale

August 3, 2015

As the demand grows for ever smaller, smarter electronics, so does the demand for understanding materials' behavior at ever smaller scales. Physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory are building a unique ...

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Study calculates the speed of ice formation

August 3, 2015

Researchers at Princeton University have for the first time directly calculated the rate at which water crystallizes into ice in a realistic computer model of water molecules. The simulations, which were carried out on supercomputers, ...

Small tilt in magnets makes them viable memory chips

August 3, 2015

University of California, Berkeley, researchers have discovered a new way to switch the polarization of nanomagnets, paving the way for high-density storage to move from hard disks onto integrated circuits.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ofidiofile
not rated yet Jun 13, 2008
i live in the u.s.a.: eastern bluebirds are having a rough time over their range thanks to threats such as (introduced) starlings. a related species of thrush, the american robin, is thriving, populations at an all-time high. mallards are doing very well too, world-wide; but black ducks -- one of their closest relatives -- not so much....

you get my drift. there could be much more to this story than we have been told; but i am highly unimpressed with it as given. so sure, go ahead, look at related species as (possible) indicators (one of many). but behavioral ecology/"niche" is going to be far more important, imho.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.