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Proc Biol Sci. 2001 Jan 22;268(1463):127-30.

Selective extinction and rapid loss of evolutionary history in the bird fauna.

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  • 1Department of Forest Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.


The extinction of species results in a permanent loss of evolutionary history. Recent theoretical studies show that this loss may be proportionally much smaller than the loss of species, but under some conditions can exceed it. Such conditions occur when the phylogenetic tree that describes the evolutionary relationships among species is highly imbalanced due to differences between lineages in past speciation and/or extinction rates. I used the taxonomy by C. G. Sibley and B. L. Monroe Jr to estimate the global loss of bird evolutionary history from historical and predicted extinctions, and to quantify the ensuing changes in balance of the bird phylogenetic tree. In the global bird fauna, evolutionary history is being lost at a high rate, similar to the rate of species extinction. The bird phylogenetic tree is highly imbalanced, and the imbalance is increased significantly by anthropogenic extinction. Historically, the elevated loss of bird evolutionary history has been fuelled mostly by phylogenetic non-randomness in the extinction of species, but the direct effect of tree imbalance is substantial and could dominate in the future.

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