World-leading scientists develop new approach to bird conservation

  • Scientists produce list of the world's 100 most unique and most endangered birds
  • New approach will help prioritise which endangered birds need particular attention

An endangered bird identified in the research

A new approach to species conservation which could change how we protect the world's most endangered birds has been developed by a team of the world's leading scientists, including the University of Sheffield.

World-wide, nearly 600 species of birds are currently in danger of becoming extinct. As human development pressures and environmental changes continue to threaten habitats, the need for proactive avian conservation is increasing.

This new approach to conservation, led by Walter Jetz, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University, in collaboration with Dr Gavin Thomas from the University of Sheffield, relies on an idea called evolutionary distinctiveness to prioritise which endangered birds should receive particular conservation or research attention.

Evolutionary distinctiveness is a quantitative measure of genetic or evolutionarily uniqueness. Birds that evolved earlier or which do not have close living relatives – such as the Oilbird, which has almost 80 million years of evolutionary history unique to it – have a high evolutionary distinctiveness. In contrast, birds that have evolved more recently or have many common relatives have a low evolutionary distinctiveness.

Dr Gavin Thomas from the University’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, said: "Not all species are evolutionarily equal – some have few close relatives that share their DNA. These species are irreplaceable. If they are driven to extinction, millions of years or evolutionary history goes with them."

The researchers mapped the habitats of all 9,993 species of birds and applied evolutionary distinctiveness ratings to identify areas with particularly distinct species.

The world's top 10 most unique and endangered birds

  1. Giant Ibis
  2. New Caledonian Owlet-nightjar
  3. California Condor
  4. Kakapo
  5. Kagu
  6. Bengal Florican
  7. Forest Owlet
  8. Philippine Eagle
  9. Christmas Island Frigatebird
  10. Sumatran Ground-cuckoo

 The results identified areas where maximum conservation of the avian tree of life can be achieved with relatively small investment. Among the targeted areas for future conservation are regions of Australia, Indonesia, Brazil, and Madagascar.

Conservationists are already taking notice of the new approach.

The Zoological Society of London's (ZSL) EDGE of existence program focuses on targeted conservation of evolutionarily unique species, such as those identified in the research.

The new quantitative methods for identifying unique species at risk have provided the EDGE of existence program with a stronger framework for their fundraising and avian conservation efforts, according to the study’s lead authors, who have worked closely with ZSL over the past 5 years.

Lead author Walter Jetz added, "We find that the highly distinct and endangered species often occur far away from places that are species-rich or already otherwise on conservation’s radar. In addition to targeted conservation action thus a better monitoring of species' changing distributions is vital."

The international research team involved in the study are: Dr Jeffrey B. Joy and Dr Arne O. Mooers from Simon Fraser University, Canada, Dr David W. Redding from University College London, and Dr Klaas Hartmann from the University of Tasmania, Australia.

The world's 100 most unique and endangered birds

  • Giant Ibis
  • New Caledonian Owlet-nightjar
  • California Condor
  • Kakapo
  • Kagu
  • Bengal Florican
  • Forest Owlet
  • Philippine Eagle
  • Christmas Island Frigatebird
  • Sumatran Ground-cuckoo
  • Spoon-billed Sandpiper
  • Northern Bald Ibis
  • Plains-wanderer
  • New Zealand Storm-petrel
  • Hooded Grebe
  • White-shouldered Ibis
  • Maleo
  • Black-hooded Coucal
  • Madagascar Serpent-eagle
  • Dwarf Olive Ibis
  • Rufous Scrub-bird
  • Noisy Scrub-bird
  • Junin Grebe
  • White-collared Kite
  • Congo Bay-owl

  • Australian Painted Snipe
  • Cuban Kite
  • Tooth-billed Pigeon
  • Nahan's Francolin
  • Sulu Hornbill
  • Shoebill
  • Purple-winged Ground-dove
  • Asian Crested Ibis
  • Sangihe Shrike-thrush
  • Jerdon's Courser
  • Lesser Florican
  • Kokako
  • Rufous-headed Hornbill
  • Masked Finfoot
  • Bahia Tapaculo
  • Waved Albatross
  • Stresemann's Bristlefront
  • Sociable Lapwing
  • Eskimo Curlew
  • Slender-billed Curlew
  • Bannerman's Turaco
  • Ashy Storm-petrel
  • Siberian Crane
  • White-throated Storm-petrel
  • Juan Fernandez Firecrown

  • Zapata Rail
  • Mindoro Bleeding-heart
  • Kaka
  • Negros Bleeding-heart
  • Black Stilt
  • Makira Moorhen
  • Great Indian Bustard
  • Abbott's Booby
  • Kittlitz's Murrelet
  • Titicaca Grebe
  • Greater Adjutant
  • Western Bristlebird
  • Eastern Bristlebird
  • Shore Plover
  • Udzungwa Forest-partridge
  • Madagascar Fish-eagle
  • White-bellied Heron
  • Subdesert Mesite
  • Long-whiskered Owlet
  • Philippine Cockatoo
  • Spix's Macaw
  • South Island Wren
  • Crow Honeyeater
  • Northern Brown Kiwi
  • Banded Ground-cuckoo

  • Pulitzer's Longbill
  • Alagoas Antwren
  • Pernambuco Pygmy-owl
  • Jamaica Petrel
  • Grenada Dove
  • Wood Snipe
  • Rio de Janeiro Antwren
  • White-eyed River-martin
  • Red-headed Vulture
  • Secretarybird
  • Peruvian Diving-petrel
  • Egyptian Vulture
  • St Helena Plover
  • Dark-winged Trumpeter
  • Uluguru Bush-shrike
  • Polynesian Ground-dove
  • Sichuan Jay
  • Mountain Serpent-eagle
  • Sulu Bleeding-heart
  • Flores Hawk-eagle
  • Tachira Antpitta
  • Beck's Petrel
  • Cebu Flowerpecker
  • Blue-eyed Ground-dove
  • Javan Trogon

Additional information

The University of Sheffield
With almost 25,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

In 2011 it was named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
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For further information please contact: 

Sean Barton
Media Relations Assistant
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9852