One of the last regions on the planet to be colonized by humans, the Pacific Islands, were home to over 1,000 unique species of birds that became extinct concurrently with the colonization, new research from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has found.
As recently as 2000 BC, many of the tropical Pacific Islands were completely uninhabited by humans, one of the last “untouched” areas on the planet. With the arrival of the first people (that we know of) in areas such as Hawaii and Fiji, extensive damage to the ecosystems of these areas began, primarily as a result of deforestation and overhunting/resource exploitation. Some of the first animals to go extinct in many of these regions were birds.
The exact scale and extent of these extinctions has been somewhat unclear, because of the limited fossil record in these regions. But it is clear the mass extinction of species was very likely caused by humans.
Professor Tim Blackburn, Director of ZSL’s Institute of Zoology says: “We studied fossils from 41 tropical Pacific islands and using new techniques we were able to gauge how many extra species of bird disappeared without leaving any trace.”
The researchers found that “160 species of non-passerine land birds (non-perching birds which generally have feet designed for specific functions, for example webbed for swimming) went extinct without a trace after the first humans arrived on these islands alone.”
“If we take into account all the other islands in the tropical Pacific, as well as seabirds and songbirds, the total extinction toll is likely to have been around 1,300 bird species,” Professor Blackburn added.
Several of these species were quite spectacular and distinct, such as the giant Moa. Other notable birds include several species of “flightless waterfowl from Hawai’i, and the New Caledonian Sylviornis, a relative of the game birds (pheasants, grouse, etc) but which weighed in at around 30kg, three times as heavy as a swan.”
“Certain islands and bird species were particularly vulnerable to hunting and habitat destruction. Small, dry islands lost more species because they were more easily deforested and had fewer places for birds to hide from hunters. Flightless birds were over 30 times more likely to become extinct that those that could fly.”
“Bird extinctions in the tropical Pacific did not stop with these losses. Forty more species disappeared after Europeans arrived, and many more species are still threatened with extinction today.”
And these extinctions are likely to continue into the foreseeable future. The rates of deforestation, habitat destruction, pollution, and over hunting have been climbing significantly in recent years.
The new research was just published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Image Credits: ZSL