British Bird Phylogeny Could Predict Future Bird Declines

An unique and insightful piece of research on British birds has recently been published by Dr Gavin Thomas in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. For the first time a phylogeny (taxonomic family tree) of British birds has been published, showing that closely related species tend to decline in sync.

Dr Gavin Thomas found that birds experiencing population declines tended to be clustered on the phylogenetic tree. The implication of his research is that birds in taxonomic groups with species that have already undergone declines, may be at risk from decline in the future. For example, the greenfinch is closely related to the linnet and bullfinch, which have undergone declines, but the greenfinch is not currently listed as endangered. It is proposed that this could be due to shared traits that predispose certain species to decline, such as requiring specialist habitats or having a slow life history, (for example small clutch size and low reproductive rate).

However it is likely that there are other key traits that enable some species to survive better than others such as broad diet and habitat requirements, which could be why the blackbird is not declining but other family members such as the mistle thrush and starling are in decline.

Where resources are limited or practicalities prohibit conservationists to undertake baseline surveys of birds, the use of genetic information to identify birds potentially under threat in the future will be incredibly useful.

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