A recent study conducted by the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath has shown that diving birds could be facing a higher risk of extinction than their non-diving counterparts. The researchers propose that this is because these birds are highly specialized and may struggle to adapt to changing environments compared to other bird species. Diving is a unique feature in birds, as only approximately one-third of waterbird species use this hunting technique to acquire food.
Joshua Tyler and Jane Younger, two evolutionary scientists, conducted a study on the evolution of diving in modern waterbirds. Their goal was to determine how diving impacted various aspects of these birds, including their physical characteristics, rate of speciation, and likelihood of extinction. The study was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The researchers discovered that diving had evolved independently 14 times and that once a group had developed this ability, it remained a permanent trait. Interestingly, the birds’ body size evolved differently depending on the type of diving they engaged in.
According to Josh Tyler, a PhD student at the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, the methods used by researchers can be applied to assist conservationists in predicting which species are most vulnerable to extinction from an evolutionary perspective. Rather than being left to chance, there seems to be a noticeable trend in evolution that can be predicted. Waterbirds have been categorized as highly related after a genetic analysis in 2015, prompting Tyler to investigate how their ability to dive impacted their body shape, niche adaptation, and evolutionary diversity. Penguins are an example of a highly adapted bird that cannot fly and is limited in its diet and environment. In contrast, plunge divers like gulls are generalists who eat a wide variety of foods and are thus thriving in terms of diversity.
According to the study, specialist birds are facing a higher risk of extinction in the future and could be heading towards an evolutionary dead end. The researchers behind the study believe that this new information can aid conservation efforts by helping predict which species are most vulnerable. The University of Bath and the Evolution Education Trust contributed funding for the study.