Our groundbreaking approach to bird conservation

Secretary bird

We've developed a conservation system which identifies avian species with the most unique evolutionary history and are using this system in new research to protect the habitats of endangered birds.

Dr Gavin Thomas from the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences has collaborated with evolutionary biologist Dr. Walter Jetz from Yale University and Dr Arne Mooers from Simon Fraser University to apply an approach called ‘evolutionary distinctiveness’ to determine which endangered birds should be prioritised for conservation.

Evolutionary distinctiveness assesses genetic or evolutionary uniqueness. Species such as the oilbird, which has almost 80 million years of evolutionary history unique to it, or birds that have few close-living relatives, have high evolutionary uniqueness.

Dr Thomas said: "Some species of bird have millions of years worth of evolutionary history in their DNA and this makes them more distinct compared with species that have evolved over less time or have a higher number of close-living relatives."

"This is a way of making sure conservation investment is focused not only on the species at greatest risk of extinction but also the species that represent the most evolutionary heritage."

Using agriculture to help protect endangered birds

Our scientists are also researching how agricultural practices can safeguard habitats of birds at risk of extinction.

More than 600 species of bird from across the world are at risk of becoming extinct. The rapidly growing human population - which is expected to reach 11 billion by the end of the century - is putting increasing pressure on the environment. The vast increase in the demand for food per capita will be met by a dramatic increase in agriculture in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa and South America.

While meeting the demands of an increasing population, agriculture remains one of the primary causes of the current global avian extinction crisis. According to a 2008 report by conservationist organisation BirdLife International, agriculture has contributed to the declines of 87 per cent of endangered species.

This is a way of making sure conservation investment is focused not only on the species at greatest risk of extinction but also the species that represent the most evolutionary heritage

Dr Gavin Thomas, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences

Reducing farming’s risk to birds is key to conservation and the system of identifying evolutionary distinctiveness is key to to this cause.

Dr David Edwards, a lecturer in conservation science at the University of Sheffield and Dr James Gilroy at the University of East Anglia conducted a collaborative research project to examine cattle pastures adjoined to forests.

The team - which included Dr Thomas - studied two types of cattle pastures: land-sharing cattle farms with isolated trees and forest patches, and land-sparing pastures without isolated trees and forest patches. The latter, however, were near large areas of protected forest.

Research showed that there was greater evolutionary diversity in land-sparing farms than land-sharing farms. Bird communities in land-sharing pastures experienced a dramatic loss of phylogenetic diversity relative to the neighbouring forest.

The team looked at each species’ evolutionary distinctiveness to identify which species are a high priority, both for their evolutionary uniqueness and their level of threat of becoming extinct.

Scientists found that birds that are evolutionarily distinctive are more at risk from land-sharing farms than land sparing farms.