A new study from Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute revealed that over the last 20,000-50,000 years birds have undergone a major extinction event, inflicted chiefly by humans, which caused the disappearance of about 10%-20% of all avian species. According to the researchers, the vast majority of the extinct species shared several features: they were large, they lived on islands, and many of them were flightless.
|Credit: Tel-Aviv University
The study was led by Prof. Shai Meiri of the School of Zoology at the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University, and Amir Fromm of the Weizmann Institute of Science. The paper was published in the Journal of Biogeography.
The researchers also found that extinction was not random, as most extinct species shared three major features:
– About 90% of them lived on islands. When humans arrived on the island, the birds were hunted by them, or fell victim to other animals introduced by humans, such as pigs, rats, monkeys, and cats.
– Most extinct bird species were large, some very large. Consequently, since each bird provided humans with a great quantity of food, they were a preferred target for hunters. In fact, the body mass of the extinct species was found to be up to 10 times as large as that of surviving species. Previous studies have found a similar phenomenon among mammals and reptiles, especially lizards and turtles that lived on islands: the larger ones were hunted by humans and became extinct.
– A large portion of the extinct bird species were flightless, and often unable to escape their pursuers. The study found that the number of flightless bird species that became extinct is double the number of flightless species still existing today; all in all, 68% of the flightless bird species known to science became extinct. One of the better-known examples is the moa bird in New Zealand: 11 species of moa became extinct within 300 hundred years, due to hunting by humans
Prof. Meiri: “Our study indicates that before the major extinction event of the past millennia, many more large, even giant, as well as flightless avian lived on our globe, and the diversity of birds living on islands was much greater than today. We hope that our findings can serve as warning signals regarding bird species currently threatened with extinction, and it is therefore important to check whether they have similar features. It must be noted, however, that conditions have changed considerably, and today the main cause for extinction of species by humans is not hunting but rather the destruction of natural habitats.”