Bird family trees predict decline

A new genetic family tree of the UK’s birds may help predict which will see their populations decline in future. The family tree – or phylogenetic map – shows how closely species are related. The scientist who compiled it, Gavin Thomas, found that populations of closely related species tend to undergo declines more or less in step.

Writing in the Royal Society’s journal Proceedings B, he suggests that an apparently healthy species may be at risk if its relatives are disappearing. So the decline in the song thrush, mistle thrush and starling could suggest problems ahead for the blackbird, which is currently thriving. Likewise, falling numbers of linnets and bullfinch might suggest that the greenfinch is not as safe as its numbers would imply.

“This hasn’t been tested on the ground, so we don’t know at the moment whether the inferences we’re making turn out to be true,” Dr Thomas told BBC News.

“And it could be some years before we do know – but I think it could be a kind of early warning system.”

The population biologist from Imperial College London found that genetic sequences from almost all of the UK’s birds had already been analysed and made public.