15 Nov 2019

Is gaining over 1000 new bird species a problem for conservation?

Recent findings have shown that many birds formerly classified as one single species are actually separate species in their own right. But what do these >1,000 new species mean for bird conservation? BirdLife’s Ashley Simkins explains his new study.

By Jessica Law

1. How did the world gain over 1,000 new bird species?

In 2014 and 2016, BirdLife conducted two major taxonomic reviews of birds, which used new information and techniques to determine what qualifies as a species. Some previously separate species were lumped together, but many more were split.

2. Why might this be a problem for bird conservation?

There has been some criticism that major taxonomic reviews like these just create more threatened species, as each new species will inevitably have a smaller population and range, leading to an increased risk of extinction. In addition, this new range may fall outside the coverage of protected areas or Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs). Since species are the most commonly-used measure for conservation, some argue that it’s hard to effectively conserve them if they’re constantly changing.

3. What did you set out to measure?

I hoped to discover if the above criticisms are true. During my masters degree at the University of East Anglia, I worked with Paul Donald (BirdLife), Graeme Buchanan (RSPB) and Richard Davies (University of East Anglia) to investigate whether these newly-split species really are more threatened, by comparing their conservation status on the IUCN Red List with other species that had remained un-split. We also measured how much of the new species’ range was covered by protected areas and IBAs, compared to the ‘parent species’ they had been split from. We determined which species are missed by protected areas and IBAs, and identified gaps in these networks.

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5. What did your study find?

Inevitably, some species came out as more threatened – but unexpectedly, the split species were on average actually less threatened than those that had not been split. This was often because the original parent species had had a large range and population, and many were classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. Similarly, on average new species had the same – and amazingly sometimes better – coverage by IBAs or protected areas compared to their parent species: proving how effective it can be to conserve sites as opposed to species.

6. What are the implications for conservation?

We did pinpoint some conservation priorities, including multiple newly-split species that fell between the gaps of IBAs and protected areas across Eastern Amazonia, Java and the Philippines. But overall, the study helped to prove that major taxonomic reviews do not necessarily have predictable impacts on conservation, and therefore that conservation and taxonomy do not need to be in conflict. When new, more accurate methods come in, we must strive to use them to distinguish and conserve species as effectively as possible.


Read the full report, The implications for conservation of a major taxonomic revision of the world’s birds, in Animal Conservation.