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Birds are frequently used as indicators of ecosystem health and are the most comprehensively studied class in the animal kingdom. Nevertheless, a comprehensive, interspecific assessment of the correlates of avian genetic diversity is lacking, even though indices of genetic diversity are of considerable interest in the conservation of threatened species. We used published data on variation at microsatellite loci from 194 bird species to examine correlates of diversity, particularly with respect to conservation status and population size. We found a significant decline in mean heterozygosity with increasing extinction risk, and showed, by excluding species whose heterozygosity values were calculated with heterospecific primers, that this relationship was not dependent on ascertainment bias. Results of subsequent regression analyses suggested that smaller population sizes of threatened species were largely responsible for this relationship. Thus, bird species at risk of extinction are relatively depauperate in terms of neutral genetic diversity, which is expected to make population recovery more difficult if it reflects adaptive genetic variation. Conservation policy will need to minimize further loss of diversity if the chances of saving threatened species are to be maximized.

Original publication




Journal article


Conserv Biol

Publication Date





1016 - 1025


Animals, Birds, Conservation of Energy Resources, Ecosystem, Extinction, Biological, Genetic Variation, Models, Biological, Risk