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Tracking Birds to Save Gorillas

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New study examines possible link between climate change and bird habitat changes

Our mission is to protect gorillas. To do that, however, we need to go beyond gorillas and look at the various environmental factors that influence the health of the gorilla population.

That’s why we track the various plant and animal species that share the gorillas’ habitat—including the birds that make their home on the steep mountain slopes of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park

A turaco perched on a tree in the Volcanoes National Park.
A turaco perched on a tree in the Volcanoes National Park.

In a recent study published in Biotropica, our scientists showed that the current distribution of birds on these volcanoes is determined by temperature, rainfall and the availability of certain preferred types of vegetation.

Climate change is causing local temperatures and rainfall patterns in Volcanoes National Park and elsewhere to become more erratic. On top of that, forests and other natural habitats worldwide are being degraded by human activities and lost rapidly to agricultural land or settlements. Many studies of tropical species show that they move to other places for example, toward higher elevations, as these changes occur.

A variable sunbird, which is quite commonly found in the gorilla habitat.
A variable sunbird, which is quite commonly found in the gorilla habitat.

“Understanding which factors determine where birds live is important if we want to keep track of future changes to the environment and to predict which species are particularly vulnerable to climate change and other human-induced disturbances,” says the Fossey Fund’s Dr. Yntze van der Hoek, lead author on the study. “By monitoring changes to their habitat, we can help ensure healthy ecosystems in which birds—and other species such as gorillas—can thrive.”

A yellow bishop, one of the species studied by the team, is seen here perching on a honeysuckle vine.
A yellow bishop, one of the species studied by the team, is seen here perching on a honeysuckle vine.
The common waxbill has a beautiful and distinctive red beak.
The common waxbill has a beautiful and distinctive red beak.