Next American Species To Go Extinct May Be Two Hawaiian Birds, Global Warming Amplifies Threats

| Wed Apr. 25, 2007 8:12 PM EDT

There's been a dramatic drop in sightings of the Akekee and the Akikiki. These two birds from the Hawaiian Island of Kauai may be on the brink of extinction, according to the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). Hawaii leads the U.S. in the total number of endangered and threatened species (329), and in extinctions, with over 1,000 plants and animals having disappeared since humans colonized the islands. Several Hawaiian bird species, the Poouli and the Ou are assumed to have recently gone extinct before captive-breeding or other protection measures could be implemented.

David Kuhn and Doug Pratt who lead birding tours on Kauai recently alerted scientists, state officials, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to their concerns about the drop in sightings. "I and others paying attention to Kauai's endangered endemics have supposed that the Akikiki would be the next species to disappear--now it is more like a race to the finish," said Kuhn. "While the Akikiki depopulation and range contraction has been linear and relatively slow, Akekee is suddenly crashing." Doug Pratt says the Akekee "was common when I was last here in fall of 2004, and has apparently crashed drastically in the last three years."

The Akikiki is a small bicolored bird from the wet montane forests in central Kauai, with less than 1,500 remaining individuals occupying less than 10% of its former range, the population declining 64% due to habitat loss and alteration, the introduction of invasive species, mosquito-born diseases such as avian malaria and pox, and the impacts of hurricanes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2005 that the Akikiki should be officially designated an endangered species, but declined to move forward with the listing for budgetary reasons, reports the ABC.

The Akekee, a small yellow and green bird that lives in the high-elevation rainforests of Kauai, was until recently thought to have a stable population, estimated at 20,000 individuals. It's also threatened by habitat loss, invasive species and disease. Evidence suggests that rising average temperatures could allow mosquitoes to survive at higher, elevations, exposing the birds to deadly diseases. Researchers for the U.S. Geological Survey conclude that even a small increase in temperatures in Hawaii's forests will eliminate much of the mosquito-free safe zone that once existed for Kauai's birds.

Read gone, and why many biologist consider the sixth great extinction underway a more dangerous threat to life on Earth than even global warming. --Julia Whitty

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