Feb 22

In combination with other factors, the warming of our planet could push more than 600 tropical bird species towards extinction before the end of this century.

Lesser whitethroat image

Climate change may also affect migratory species such as this lesser whitethroat

Climate change combination

Research published recently in the journal Biological Conservation has revealed that, when coupled with other factors such as deforestation, temperature increases resulting from global climate change could account for the extinction of between 100 and 2,500 tropical bird species before the end of this century.

This figure range may seem rather large, but this is due to the actual number of species at risk being dependent upon the extents of both climate change and habitat loss. Researchers explain that the most likely range of bird extinctions lies between 600 and 900 species, which translates to 10-14% of all tropical bird species. This rather shocking figure does not include those migratory bird species which journey to tropical regions.

Climate change talk is often centred around polar species, but Çağan Şekercioğlu, lead author of the research paper from the University of Utah, explains that tropical species are just as much at risk as those residing in the poles, “Birds are perfect canaries in the coal mine—it’s hard to avoid that metaphor—for showing the effects of global change on the world’s ecosystems and the people who depend on those ecosystems. Compared to temperate species that often experience a wide range of temperature on a yearly basis, tropical species, especially those limited to tropical forests with stable climates, are less likely to keep up with rapid climate change.

Scissor-tailed hummingbird image

Some tropical species, such as this scissor-tailed hummingbird, have limited capacity to shift their ranges

Species at risk

This latest research involved collating information from 200 separate scientific studies related to tropical birds and climate change. From this, researchers were able to establish which bird species are most susceptible to climate change, pinpointing species living at high elevations, which could run out of habitat, and those already living in small or restricted ranges as those most at risk from increasing temperatures.

The study shows that some bird species could be affected by an increase in extreme weather events such as droughts and storms, with ecosystems potentially lacking the necessary resiliency to face climate change. An area of particular concern is the Amazon, which has suffered two record droughts in the last seven years alone. Bird species rely heavily on the availability of food during the breeding season, and prolonged droughts could affect the birds’ ability to find adequate food supplies to feed themselves and their young.

Disease transmission is a further threat which could be compounded by the effects of climate change, with diseases such as malaria being expected to spread to higher altitudes and latitudes, potentially affecting a variety of tropical bird species. Coastal and island birds were identified as being at risk from the increasing intensity of hurricanes, as well as rising sea levels.

Resplendent quetzal image

The resplendent quetzal now has to compete with other species which are moving into its habitat as a result of rising temperatures

Alright for some

Yet not all species will suffer at the hands of climate change, explains Şekercioğlu, “Not all effects of climate change are negative, and changes in temperature and precipitation regimes will benefit some species.” One such fortunate bird is the rainbow billed toucan, which has demonstrated an increasing range, spreading to higher altitudes.

However, those species that benefit from climate change are few, and the end result will likely be a significant loss in bird biodiversity. In the case of the rainbow billed toucan, its range expansion has come at the cost of another species, the resplendent quetzal. The quetzal now has to compete with the toucan for nesting holes, and protect its eggs and young from the predatory immigrant.

Current efforts to cut emissions and stem global warming are not proving to be adequate, particularly given that an increase of just one degree could push an additional 100 to 500 tropical birds to extinction. In an attempt to combat the negative effects of climate change, the researchers recommend more research and improved monitoring of tropical birds, the creation and expansion of protected areas to protect a wider range of bird species, and the restoration of degraded lands.

However, the authors warn that more will need to be done to permanently reverse the extinction trend, “Such efforts will be temporary fixes if we fail to achieve important societal change to reduce consumption, to control the emissions of greenhouse gases and to stop climate change. Otherwise, we face the prospect of an out-of-control climate that will not only lead to enormous human suffering, but will also trigger the extinction of countless organisms, among which tropical birds will be but a fraction of the total.

Read more on this story at Mongabay.com – Birders beware: climate change could push 600 tropical birds into extinction.

Learn more about climate change on ARKive or take part in ARKive’s Creative Climate Change Challenge.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author