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New Study Suggests Twice as Many Bird Species as Previously Believed

Science By
A great frigate bird flying over Galapagos, Island (Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
A great frigate bird flying over Galapagos, Island, just of the world’s estimated 18,000+ bird species. (Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)


We here at RealClearLife have looked into birds before, exploring everything from their 99-million-year-old ancestors to the 150-pound, potentially deadly cassowary. (Seriously, these things are just terrifying.) Now, however, we bring news that may shake how you view birds altogether. For a new study published in the journal PLoS ONE has suggested that the earth boasts 18,043 bird species, dwarfing the 9,000 to 10,000 previously assumed.

Why were the earlier estimates so low? They were based on the “biological species concept,” defining species in terms of what animals can breed together. “It’s really an outdated point of view, and it’s a concept that is hardly used in taxonomy outside of birds,” says study lead author Dr. George Barrowclough. (He’s an associate curator in the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History.)

Keep in mind that all 18,043 species haven’t actually been counted yet. It’s just an estimate. Here’s how Dr. Barrowclough explained the new method:

“Using a sample of 200 species taken from a list of 9,159 biological species determined primarily by morphological criteria, we applied a diagnostic, evolutionary species concept to a morphological and distributional data set that resulted in an estimate of 18,043 species of birds worldwide, with a 95 percent confidence interval of 15,845 to 20,470.”

And yes, it is possible that this new bird species total is incorrect. (The authors acknowledge there is the possibility of an “overestimate.”) Even so, it is clear that the number of bird species had previously been underestimated. This new approach appears to be a significant step towards a more accurate methodology. To read more about the study, click here. Watch birds showing off their brains in the video below.

—RealClearLife Staff