Resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). a member of the Trogon (Trogonidae) family, one of the five bird families deemed to be most at risk from climate change. Image © Cagan Sekercioglu.

A key question under climate change is ‘how many extinctions can we expect?’ For the first time, a pioneering new study has mapped out global climate change risk to all the world’s birds, as well amphibians and corals. Winged Sentinels co-author Cagan Sekercioglu is among the  authors.

The largest of its kind, the study draws on work of more than 100 scientists over a five-year period. It reveals that many bird species currently considered safe are at risk from climate change, and underscores the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit warming.

Like most former studies on extinction, this study assesses changes to species’ available ‘climate space’ as temperatures, precipitation and sea levels change. But in a key advance, it also examines biological traits of species to gain a better understanding of their risk from climate change. It accounts for traits that could increase sensitivity to climate change and reduce capacity to adapt: traits including specialised habitat requirements, narrow environmental tolerances, and rarity (for sensitivity); and poor ability to disperse, low genetic diversity and long generation times (for low capacity to adapt).

The results provide estimates of relative risk — showing which species are at greater risk of extinction from climate change — rather than the number of species that will be impacted.

This risk comparison shows that 608 to 851 bird species already listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List are also highly vulnerable to climate change. But it also revealed that between 17 and 41 % of birds (1,715 to 4,039 species) not yet listed as threatened are highly vulnerable to climate change too. This suggests these species should be new priorities for conservation under climate change.

“Clearly, if we simply carry on with conservation as usual, without taking climate change into account, we’ll fail to help many of the species and areas that need it most,” said report co-author Wendy Foden of the IUCN Global Species Programme in a media statement.

The study found  antbirds, trogons, hornbills, manakins and hummingbirds to be the five bird families most vulnerable to climate change.


Foden et al. (2013) Identifying the world’s most climate change vulnerable species: A systematic trait-based assessment of all birds, amphibians and corals. PLOS One 8(6): e65427.

IUCN (2013) Surprise species at risk from climate change. Media statement, 12 June 2013.