Federico Rico/The New York Times

Certain avian populations have been labeled extinct as a result of mosquito presence.

May 8, 2022

Wildlife Diversity At Risk: 23 Species Declared Extinct in 2021

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In Sept. 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services released a report declaring 23 animal species as extinct, meaning they haven’t been sighted in decades. Climate change and other anthropogenic causes are the leading factors to their extinction.

The ivory-billed woodpecker, the third largest woodpecker in the world, first made the endangered species list in 1963. Bird watchers and researchers have attempted to spot this elusive bird many times. 

Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology led the way for expeditions after a reported sighting in 2005 by wildlife biologist Tim Barksdale in Arkansas. Having traveled 523,000 acres across eight states, scientists were still not able to find definitive evidence of surviving ivory-bills. 

11 species, such as the Bridled white-eye and Kauai `o`o, native to the Hawaii Islands also made the list.

Threats such as new predators and diseases, that were introduced to this area by human activities, pose a high risk to these endemic birds that have never experienced these selective pressures.

“When you’re dealing with very small populations, they tend to be more sensitive to extinction. Groups like the Hawaiian birds are endemic and haven’t been exposed to a lot of predators with different diseases,” Amanda Rodewald, senior director of the Center of Avian Populations at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said. 

According to Rodewald, farming also negatively impacts these Hawaiian birds.

“When mosquitoes were introduced, accidentally, some carried avian malaria and when forests were cut down, this created little pockets of water that helped mosquitoes breed,” Rodewald said.

With warmer temperatures, as a result of climate change, the mosquito habitat expands. The birds found refuge from the malaria carrying mosquitos on the cooler mountain tops of Hawaii, but as the temperature increased, the mosquitos made their way up the mountain and pushed the remaining avian populations to extinction. 

The same effects can be seen across North America but at a slower rate. 

“We have lost about one in four breeding birds from North America since 1970,” Rodewald said. 

Avian diversity isn’t the only population affected. Many freshwater mussels also made the list for considered extinction. 

Mussels inhabit streams, rivers and creeks and the highest diversity of mussels are located within the Midwest where there is increased eutrophication. The chemical runoff from nearby farms and cities pollute the waters with nitrogen and phosphorus. Because these mussels are filter feeders, they are sensitive to this shift in nutrients. Researchers at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio have started looking for ways to protect these species.

By establishing mussel conservations with built in protection and monitoring protocols, these researchers ensure safe keeping of these critically endangered species.

“Reducing the risk of collision, keeping cats inside, habitats like backyards, donating to conservation causes… there are all sorts of things that we can do,” Rodewald said.

Regulatory practices, such as Protecting America’s Wildlife Act, are currently in the process of being passed. This act aims to provide additional funding and prevention programs at-risk wildlife populations before they become critically endangered. 

While decreasing populations can cause concern, it’s important to stay hopeful, according to Rodewald. By getting involved locally and by taking the available steps to reduce these population declines, individuals can continue to make a difference in wildlife diversity.