My eyes popped out with this headline from none other than Darwin-loving, ID-despising, creationist-hating New Scientist:
Tree of Bird Life Could Solve Noah’s Ark Problem
GENETICS could help solve the Noah’s Ark problem: faced with limited space, which species do you save? Focusing on the most evolutionarily unique and ancient species could allow us to save more branches of the tree of life, at the lowest cost and effort.
Now a genetic analysis has found the most unique birds and identified 113 locations that hold more than half the global avian evolutionary diversity. The findings will be used to focus conservation efforts where they will have the biggest impact.
Conservationists tend to focus on a few big-name species, like lions. For example, 70 per cent of mammal funding goes to three of 26 families, says Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).
But animals like big cats have limited evolutionary value. That’s because they are closely related to many species, so if they died out most of their genes would live on. For species with few close relatives, losing them would wipe out all their genes. Instead of trimming twigs from the tree of life, we would lose whole branches (see “Oddities in danger”).
A ZSL initiative called EDGE of Existence has been running since 2007, with the aim of preserving evolutionarily distinct species. It has ranked the world’s mammals and amphibians according to how unique and threatened they are. But most conservation funding ignores how unique species are.
“It’s not that we need to stop what we’re doing now,” says Carly Waterman, EDGE of Existence’s programme manager. But she says conservationists need to put more effort into preserving the branches of the tree of life.
“We can be smarter,” says Walter Jetz of Yale University. In as-yet-unpublished research, he ranked the world’s birds in terms of evolutionary distinctness. For the first time, birds can be prioritised based on how unique, abundant and endangered they are.
To do this, Jetz drew an evolutionary tree of birds using genetic data from 6500 of the 10,000 bird species, which told him which were the most unique. He then combined that with data on threats and population sizes. Jetz presented his preliminary results at a Royal Society meeting in London earlier this month.
EDGE of Existence will launch a list of the 100 priority birds, based on Jetz’s work, in the coming weeks.