Catastrophic mass extinction of birds in Pacific Islands followed arrival of first people, research shows

Mar 25, 2013
Credit: Zoological Society of London

Research carried out by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and collaborators reveals that the last region on earth to be colonised by humans was home to more than 1,000 species of birds that went extinct soon after people reached their island homes.

The paper was published today (25th) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Almost 4,000 years ago, tropical Pacific Islands were an untouched paradise, but the arrival of the first people in places like Hawaii and Fiji caused irreversible damage to these natural havens, due to overhunting and deforestation. As a result, birds disappeared. But understanding the scale and extent of these extinctions has been hampered by uncertainties in the .

Professor Tim Blackburn, Director of ZSL's Institute of Zoology says: "We studied fossils from 41 tropical Pacific islands and using new techniques we were able to gauge how many extra species of bird disappeared without leaving any trace."

They found that 160 species of non-passerine land birds (non-perching birds which generally have feet designed for specific functions, for example webbed for swimming) went extinct without a trace after the first humans arrived on these islands alone.

"If we take into account all the other islands in the tropical Pacific, as well as seabirds and songbirds, the total toll is likely to have been around 1,300 bird species," Professor Blackburn added.

Species lost include several species of moa-nalos, large flightless waterfowl from Hawai'i, and the New Caledonian Sylviornis, a relative of the game birds (pheasants, grouse, etc) but which weighed in at around 30kg, three times as heavy as a swan.

Certain islands and bird species were particularly vulnerable to hunting and habitat destruction. Small, dry islands lost more species because they were more easily deforested and had fewer places for birds to hide from hunters. were over 30 times more likely to become extinct that those that could fly.

Bird extinctions in the did not stop with these losses. Forty more species disappeared after Europeans arrived, and many more species are still threatened with extinction today.

Explore further: PacifiCorp Energy pleads guilty in bird deaths (Update)

More information: "Magnitude and variation of prehistoric bird extinctions in the Pacific," by Richard Duncan, Alison Boyer, and Tim Blackburn, PNAS, 2013.

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grondilu
not rated yet Mar 25, 2013
4,000 years ago? Then those islands are far from being the last regions on earth colonized by humans.

Wasn't New-Zealand discovered (by Maoris) much later, for instance?
nkalanaga
not rated yet Mar 26, 2013
It doesn't say the humans arrived 4,000 years ago, just that the islands were undisturbed then. You're right, though, that New Zealand was colonized much later, somewhere around 700 years ago. It took quite a while for the Polynesians to get that far, so 4,000 years for the entire migration could be reasonable.

From the Wikipedia entry "Polynesia", listing the three theories on spread of humans in the region:
"Express Train model: A recent (c. 3000–1000 BC) expansion out of Taiwan, via the Philippines and eastern Indonesia and from the northwest ("Bird's Head") of New Guinea, on to Island Melanesia by roughly 1400 BC, reaching western Polynesian islands right about 900 BC. This theory is supported by the majority of current human genetic data, linguistic data, and archaeological data."
mfritz0
not rated yet Mar 26, 2013
Well, most birds taste like chicken. The early inhabitants probably ate a lot of them.
nkalanaga
not rated yet Mar 27, 2013
That, and, in many case, both pigs and rats came with the humans, eating a lot of eggs and the flightless birds. New Zealand is still fighting those today. It wasn't just Europeans who brought invasive species.

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