When birds, like the dodo, go extinct, it may be a sign of a much more widespread problem. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
"Every 20 minutes," the saying goes, "we lose an animal species." In reality, however, it is difficult to collect the data that details this trend—and motivates policy makers to take action.
Now, researchers believe they have found a way to estimate ecosystem-wide rates of loss based on one easily observed group of animals: birds.SLIDESHOW: Extraordinary Photos of Commonplace Birds
Clive Hambler, lead author of the research and a professor at Oxford University's Department of Zoology, commented that "biodiversity loss is arguably much more serious and more permanent than climate change," but, he added:
It's impossible to know if policy targets to reduce the loss are being met without accurate measures of extinction rates. Until now, we had only crude estimates for a very few types of organism. Now we've got evidence that many groups of living things—lichens, bugs, moths, fish, plants and so on—are going extinct at a very similar rate to the birds.
The reason this works, is that birds are such a diverse species, occupying a wide range of habitats and filling a number of ecological niches. Also, they are highly susceptible to habitat loss—to a degree, researchers found, that is roughly analogous to other species.
Unfortunately, the study also revealed a much more severe situation than previously thought. In Britain, where researchers used extensive existing biodiversity catalogs to confirm their findings, more than 1,000 species were found to be on the brink on extinction—and some of these may have already expired.
The study, researchers said, provides more evidence that a mass extinction is underway—and gives conservationists a tool to quickly assess the severity of biodiversity loss in threatened regions.