Museum-fueled global study shows you can't judge biodiversity by its bird

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The canary in the coal mine, the supposed harbinger of threat for all those around it, isn't as true as it seemed for biodiversity conservation, according to a sweeping study in which a Michigan State University ornithologist participated.

A global group of scientists including Pamela Rasmussen, of the Department of Zoology, has done the most detailed study yet of how rare and threatened species of birds, mammals and amphibians are distributed across the globe. The paper, "Global Distribution and Conservation of Rare and Threatened Vertebrates," led by Ian Owens, Imperial College London, and John Gittleman, University of Virginia, is published in the Nov. 2 edition of the British science journal Nature.

Rasmussen, an internationally renowned expert on birds and author of a recent two-volume guide to birds of South Asia, contributed species occurrence data from her vast database to the study.

What they've learned is that contrary to popular belief, pinpointing geographic areas in which species of birds are rare or endangered is not a reliable way to assume where other species of animals occur that may also be in peril. "Birds cannot be used as predictors of rare species of mammals or amphibians," Rasmussen said. "It had been assumed on limited studies that birds could be used to determine what were priority areas of conservation for other groups. This study shows that is not the case."

The study gathered enormous amounts of data the global distributions of 9,626 species of birds, 4,104 species of mammals and 5,619 species of amphibians and painstakingly plotted them in small grids to gain a more detailed understanding of where the animals live.

Rasmussen, who provided information based on some 230,000 bird specimens, said this level of detail showed that while bird species can be rare or endangered in a general area, closer examination can show that other creatures are thriving but may be struggling a couple grids over.

That, she said, is important to know since conservation efforts often are focused on small geographic areas and efforts may be misguided.

The specimens in Rasmussen's database are in museum collections, including the MSU Museum, where she is assistant curator of mammalogy and ornithology. The collections underscore, she said, the richness of scientific data found behind the public exhibits at museums.

"A lot of people think of museums as places you go on a Sunday afternoon with your kids and look at stuffed specimens," she said. "Most people never see the actual research collections in natural history museums and those collections are the heart of natural history museums. Some of the bigger museums have upwards of a million specimens and these are an incredibly valuable resource for scientists of all kinds, particularly those doing projects like this."

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