Rare Hawaiian forest birds may lose half of their natural high-elevation habitat by the end of the century as a result of climate shifts and disease outbreaks, according to researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

In a study recently published in the journal PLOS ONE, USGS researchers examined the natural threats facing Hawaii's endemic birds. They found that the forest dwellers have actually been threatened for many years due to habitat loss and disease, according to a news release.

"As dire as these findings are, they do not mean that these bird species are doomed," Dr. Lucas Fortini, lead author of the study and a research ecologist with the USGS, said in the release. "Instead, our findings indicate what may happen if nothing is done to address the primary drivers of decline: disease spreading uphill into the few remaining refuges."

Currently, high-elevation forests still remain a safe place for Hawaii's rare birds. In these areas, native vegetation flourishes and cool temperatures limit the number of mosquitoes that carry diseases, such as avian malaria. Some of the most vulnerable populations of forest birds have remained viable while living under these conditions, according to the release. However, climate change may soon warm forests and invite disease-carrying mosquitoes to higher elevations, researchers predicted.   

For their study, researchers used a species sightings database, regional climate projections, and distribution models to better understand how changing climates may ultimately impact Hawaii's 20 forest bird species. They concluded that 10 species, including several endangered bird species, may lose 50 percent of their natural habitats to warming temperatures and the increase spread of disease. They also found that as many as six species could lose up to 90 percent of their natural habitat, according to the release.

Like many other rare species, Hawaiian forest birds have habitat specifications that limit them as to how far they can expand their range and escape environmental threats. Researchers suggest that their study sheds light on the importance of conservation and restoration in these areas. This also calls for new means of controlling mosquito infestations, reserachers added.  

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