Ancient Avian Extinction in the Pacific

By: The Scribe on Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The problem of species extinction isn’t a modern-day invention—the story of how the dodo became extinct is probably one of the earliest non-dinosaur examples that everyone knows about, but dinosaurs and dodos aside, extinction has been an issue for… well, as long as humans have been around to mess things up.

A recent report has found that the first humans to settle the Pacific Islands weren’t just exploring and discovering… they were also destroying, and ended up leaving “a wave of extinct bird species in their wake.”

Humans are known for their destructive tendencies on existing species, but usually it’s the land mammal populations that suffer—creatures who are large enough to provide meat and resources. Historians and biologists are well aware that numerous large species in Australia were hunted to extinction about 40,000 years ago, and the first North Americans are guilty of the same between 10,000-20,000 years ago.

But when humans trekked their way to the Pacific Islands between 3500 and 700 years ago, they discovered something incredible! A number of bird species had actually evolved to be flightless, fearless, and more than a little rotund. The ecosystems of islands like Hawaii and Fiji had no real predators for these birds, so they just didn’t bother to fly anymore… why would they need to?

Sadly, humans thought this meant open season on the bird species, and hunted many of these species to extinction—and the other species? Well, because humans started burning away trees and natural plant life for the sake of agriculture, the other birds lost their habitats and died out that way.

The fossil record shows the extinction of these species, but until recently that record was rather incomplete. Some rough estimates on the numbers of total bird extinction have ranged from 800 to 2000 species. A study done at the University of Canberra has now pegged a more accurate number to be at least 983 species, and up to 1300.

What does that mean overall? It means that humans arriving in the Pacific Islands were responsible for theextinction of almost 10% of the world’s bird species.
If there’s any good news in this, it means archaeologists now know more or less what they’re looking for in terms of the remains of extinct species—so while these bird species are gone forever, the future may reveal their ancient remains and tell us about who they were and what species they were ancestors to.


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