"What is happening on Kauai is truly tragic and does not bode well for other high elevation forest bird communities in the Hawaiian Islands that have been able to persist into this century," said Atkinson, also with the U.S. Geological Survey Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center.
The new study, he said, "really is the nail in the coffin, so to speak, and will hopefully be a wake up call about how little time we have to make critical decisions about saving remaining native species in the islands."
Atkinson and his colleagues found that two birds in particular, 'akeke'e and 'akikiki, are experiencing dangerous population declines as a result of the changes.
Paxton and his team now estimate that 'akeke'e could go extinct in the wild by the year 2028 and 'akikiki by about 2046. Scientists have been rushing to collect some eggs from these highly endangered birds to establish a captive breeding population.
There are a number of steps that can be taken to save the colorful birds in their native habitat, but each comes with incredible challenges.
First, Paxton said, the disease cycle for avian malaria -- parasite to mosquito to bird -- needs to be broken. The most promising approach is by reducing mosquito populations, but Kauai's mountains are remote, roadless, rugged, and many areas unreachable. As a result, larval habitat reduction and localized pesticide spraying are impractical.
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Other approaches being considered are irradiated sterile male mosquito releases, introduction of Wolbachia bacteria into wild populations of mosquitoes that can interfere with malaria infecting mosquitoes and consideration of genetically engineered mosquitoes.
"All hold promise, but have technological, social and/or regulatory hurdles, and would require considerable money," Paxton said, adding that researchers are also studying Hawaiian honeycreeper genes, to see if they can naturally boost the birds' own immunity. There is also interest in controlling numbers of predatory rats near the birds' breeding areas, and in habitat restoration of Kauai's remote forests to "slow declines and to buy more time."
The new research also serves as a warning for what is predicted to happen on other Hawaiian Islands, such as Maui and the big island of Hawaii. Paxton explained that Kauai's forest habitat is at lower elevations than on these other islands, and so Kauai's forest birds are more vulnerable to the climate change-fueled threats.
"With continued warming, we expect mosquitoes and disease to make their way into those (other Hawaiian Island) forests, with the same devastating consequences for the bird communities of those islands," he said.
PHOTOS OF KAUAI'S ENDANGERED FOREST BIRDS: