Researchers at Imperial College London and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) found targeting conservation efforts to safeguard biodiversity, rather than focusing on charismatic species, could make spending on threatened birds more effective.

The study is the first to link the costs of protecting vulnerable species, measured in millions of years of evolution.

It identifies the top 20 birds for safeguarding maximum biodiversity with minimum spend, of which number one on the list – Botha’s lark – currently receives no conservation spending at all.

Researchers focused on some 200 birds categorised in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List as either vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, in a study published on January 5 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

They found if conservation spending on these birds continues along current lines, only 85.9 million years of evolutionary history will be safeguarded, compared to a potential impact of 340 million years.

James Rosindell, from the department of life sciences at Imperial College London, explained how one pound could potentially preserve 26 years of bird evolution.

Dr Rosindell said: “We found that, spent wisely, [one pound] can preserve 26 years of bird evolution, while in the worst-case scenario, it costs £2,485 to save just a single year.”

By adapting an approach already in use by ZSL, researchers categorised the birds in terms of their risk of extinction and their evolutionary distinctiveness, looking not only at how far they had diverged from other species, but also the relative extinction risk of their relatives.

For each species they then calculated the number of years of evolutionary history that could be safeguarded for 50 years by conservation action on that species.

Finally, they combined these results with the estimated cost of reducing each species’ extinction risk by at least one red list category within 10 years. The results gave the team a list of the top 20 birds on which conservation efforts should be targeted to maximise the impact of the spend in safeguarding evolutionary biodiversity.

Dr Rosindell concluded: “We have to acknowledge we will never have enough resources to protect all species under threat, so tough choices will have to be made: the ‘Noah’s Ark’ dilemma. However, an encouraging message from our research is that, correctly targeted, we can still do a lot with a relatively small amount of money.”

The top 20 birds identified in the study were:

1. Botha’s lark

2. Tooth-billed pigeon

3. Polynesian ground dove

4. Tuamotu kingfisher

5. Christmas Island frigate bird

6. Chatham Island shag

7. Buff-breasted button quail

8. Giant ibis

9. Sangihe Shrike-thrush 

10. Forest owlet

11. Raso lark

12. Blue-crowned Laughingthrush

13. Santa Marta parakeet

14. White-collared kite

15. Marquesan kingfisher

16. Sociable lapwing

17. Purple-backed sunbeam

18. Madagascar serpent eagle

19. Liben lark

20.Thick-billed parrot

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