Biodiversity research does not stop at the species level — perhaps even more interesting are the rules governing variability in life histories within species or populations. Why are some individuals as possible migrating and others staying, or some monogamous and others promiscuous?
Synthesizing global information. Research efforts could focus on avian biodiversity, about which there is a wealth of published life-history and ecological data. Available information should be collated into an accessible database network. Novel technologies, such as ‘black-box’ data loggers attached to animals, allow continuous surveillance of behaviour8. They can be used to track individuals over time and, as such, to map species’ shifts in distribution. It is possible to record an individual’s physiology as it moves throughout its environment, and these data can be used to link internal (for example, heart rate) and external (for example, temperature) parameters (see image above).
Data on distributional changes can be shared with the scientific community, conservationists and educators, using the nascent Movebank database (www.movebank.org). A future genomic mapping of bird traits (see Ecological genomics, p26–27) should be spatially explicit to enable linkage between GenBank (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/genbank/) and Movebank information.
Using natural experiments. Studies of environmental changes and associated changes in species’ life histories can reveal how particular traits influence whether they succeed in adapting to environmental change. More research is needed on the factors that influence life-history traits and their mechanistic underpinnings at the local and global scale. For example, areas rich in species— biodiversity hotspots — tend to have species with greater longevity, delayed ages of first breeding and smaller clutch sizes, but the reasons for this are still unknown.
Better knowledge for better conservation. Biodiversity research should be applied to the needs of conservation. Analysis of a global ‘knowledge map’ of birds can highlight the areas where gaps in our information about species are most apparent. This emphasizes the point that the regions with the highest biodiversity are the most poorly understood in terms of basic biodiversity information.
Getting to grips with the fundamental patterns and processes involved in the evolution and maintenance of biodiversity will allow us not only to anticipate how ecosystems and species respond to environmental change, but also to maximize the human benefits of a biodiverse planet9. Biodiversity science offers immediate benefits to humans, from enhancing world-wide crop output to reducing the cost of the continual fight against invasive pests. We are only on the verge of understanding the importance of biodiversity for human health issues. Due to their high mobility and frequent interactions with humans, birds present pivotal biomarkers allowing the establishment of a global early-warning system for environmental hazards.
The maintenance of tropical rainforest diversity is one of the enigmas in ecology, and globally affects both carbon balance and climate. Key observations made by the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology at Radolfzell unexpectedly showed that oilbirds are essential players in the long-distance dispersal of seeds in the Amazonian foothill rainforests of South America. This study also pioneers a new era of remote bio-logging of animal movements (Holland, R. A. et al. PLoS ONE 4, e8264, 2009).