Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Seeing Double

Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Seeing Double

Article excerpt

It appears that we haven't been telling our feathered friends apart too well. New research suggests that there are about 18,000 bird species in the world--nearly twice as many as previously thought.

The research, led by the American Museum of Natural History and published in the online journal plos one, focuses on "hidden" avian diversity--birds that look similar to one another, or were thought to interbreed, but are actually different species.

"We are proposing a major change to how we count diversity," Joel Cracraft, an author of the study and a curator in the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Ornithology, said in a statement. "This new number says that we haven't been counting and conserving species in the ways we want."

Birds are traditionally thought of as a well-studied group, with more than 95 percent of their global species diversity estimated to have been described. Most checklists used by bird watchers, as well as by scientists, say that there are roughly between 9,000 and 10,000 species of birds. But those numbers are based on what's known as the "biological species concept," which defines species in terms of which animals can breed together. "It's really an outdated point of view, and it's a concept that is hardly used in taxonomy outside of birds," said the study's lead author George Barrowclough, an associate curator in the museum's ornithology department.

For the new work, the researchers examined a random sample of 200 bird species through the lens of morphology--the study of the physical characteristics like plumage pattern and color, which can be used to highlight birds with separate evolutionary histories. …

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