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‘Outdated’ IUCN Red List Is Missing Hundreds of Threatened Bird Species, Duke Scientists Find

More than 200 bird species in six rapidly developing regions are at risk of extinction despite not being included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of at-risk species, research led by Duke University scientists has found.

The study, published today in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, used remote sensing data to map recent land-use changes that are reducing suitable habitat for more than 600 bird species in the Atlantic forest of Brazil, Central America, the western Andes of Colombia, Sumatra, Madagascar and Southeast Asia, Duke said in a news statement. “Of the 600 species, only 108 are currently classified by the IUCN Red List as being at risk of extinction.”

Although currently classified as near threatened by IUCN, the current study suggest this bird should be in the vulnerable category due to forest loss within its range Photo credit: Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela
Although currently classified as near threatened by IUCN, the current study suggest this bird should be in the vulnerable category due to forest loss within its range
Photo credit: Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela

Accelerated Risks of Extinction

The new analysis, however, reveals that 210 of the species face accelerated risks of extinction and 189 of them should now be classified as Threatened, based on the extent and pace of habitat loss documented by recent remote sensing, Duke’s statement said.

“Good as it is, the Red List assessment process dates back 25 years and does not make use of advances in geospatial technologies that have placed powerful new tools at our fingertips, including vastly improved digital maps, regular global assessments of land use changes from satellite images, and maps showing which areas of the planet are protected by national parks,” said Stuart L. Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Pimm is also a member of the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative and emeritus member of the Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration.

 

Habitat loss is the main threat to the World’s most endangered species Photo credit: Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela
Habitat loss is the main threat to the World’s most endangered species.
Photo credit: Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela

“By not incorporating this type of modern geospatial data directly into its assessments, the Red List may be seriously underestimating the number of species at risk and causing scientists and policymakers to overlook priority areas for conservation,” Pimm said.

“The Red List employs rigorously objective criteria, is transparent, and democratic in soliciting comments on species decisions,” he stressed. “That said, its methods are seriously outdated.”

For instance, “While the Red List currently includes estimates of the size of a species’ geographical range in its assessment process, it fails to account for how much preferred  habitat remains within that range,” said Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela, the new study’s lead author, who received her Ph.D. from Duke earlier this year.

“Some bird species prefer forests at mid-elevations, while others inhabit moist lowland forests. Knowing how much of this preferred habitat remains — and how much of it has been destroyed or degraded — is vital for accurately assessing extinction risks, especially for species that have small geographical ranges to begin with. But it’s ignored in the current Red List assessment process,” she said.

The Velvet-purple Coronet is currently classified as least concern by IUCN but its range is <20,000Km2, indicating it should be classified as vulnerable Photo credit: Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela
The Velvet-purple Coronet is currently classified as least concern by IUCN but its range is <20,000Km2, indicating it should be classified as vulnerable.
Photo credit: Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela

“When these factors are accounted for, some species that are not currently considered at risk of extinction likely have ranges that are smaller than those that the Red List otherwise quite sensibly decides are at risk,” said study co-author Clinton Jenkins, Professor at Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas in Brazil who directs the biodiversity mapping site www.biodiversitymapping.org.

“Even with its current shortcomings, the Red List is an indispensable global asset that reflects the findings of many scientists and organizations,” Ocampo-Peñuela stressed. “But it could become an even better resource by incorporating data from modern geospatial technologies that allow us to track changes occurring in the field more rapidly and in greater detail than through field observations alone.

“Natural habitats in the most biodiverse places on Earth are disappearing, pushing species toward extinction a thousand times faster than their natural rates. Preventing these extinctions requires knowing what species are at risk and where they live,” she said.  “With better data we can make better decisions, and have a greater chance of saving species and protecting the places that matter.”

Binbin Li and Varsha Vijay, doctoral students at Duke’s Nicholas School, co-authored the paper with Ocampo-Peñuela, Pimm and Jenkins.

Funding came from the Fulbright Scholar Program, the Ciencia Sem Fronteiras Program (#A025_2013), the National Science Foundation (#1106401), and the China Scholarship Council.

Conversion of forests to cattle pastures and agricultural land reduces species’ ranges, increasing their vulnerability to extinction. Photo credit: Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela
Conversion of forests to cattle pastures and agricultural land reduces species’ ranges, increasing their vulnerability to extinction.
Photo credit: Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela

CITATION: “Incorporating Explicit Geospatial Data Shows More species at Risk of Extinction than the Current Red List,” Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela, Clinton N. Jenkins, Varsha Vijay, Binbin V. Li, Stuart L. Pimm; Scientific Advances; 2016.