The ‘ghosts’ of extinct birds in modern ecosystems

by Darren Naish

It needs to be better appreciated that the vast majority of modern ecosystems and communities are ‘broken’ or, at least, very much incomplete compared to the situation present within very recent geological history: they lack an often significant number of key component species including some, many or all of the so-called keystone species.

Why? As is well known, human hunting, climatic change and a combination of the two has eradicated a diverse assemblage of big-bodied mammals, birds, crocodylians, tortoises and other taxa across the Americas, Australasia, the Pacific and elsewhere. Small-bodied taxa have been removed as well, across the board.

The animals I have in mind were generally ubiquitous throughout the Pleistocene, persisted into the early parts of the Holocene (that is, the last 11,700 years or so) and, in cases, survived into truly ‘modern’ times. Gigantic herbivorous birds, like moa on New Zealand and elephant birds on Madagascar, for example, were still alive as recently as 1000 years ago (at least).

Even in places where the megafauna has persisted (many of the Eurasian and east African taxa are still extant, for example), they are substantially reduced in population and range, typically being extinct across huge tracts of their historical range…

(read more: Tetrapod Zoology Blog - Scientific American)

illustrations by John Megahan and Darren Naish

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