Most traditional "biodiversity" indices have an uncertain ecological interpretation, unfavourable sampling properties, and excessive data requirements. A new index of taxonomic distinctness (the average evolutionary distance between species in an assemblage) has many advantages over traditional measures, but its ecological interpretation remains unclear. We used published behavioural species data in conjunction with bird atlas data to quantify simple functional metrics (the fraction of species engaged in non-competitive interactions, and the average between-species disparity in habitat preferences) for breeding-bird assemblages in Europe and North America. We then analysed correlations of functional metrics with taxonomic distinctness and species richness, respectively. All functional metrics had weak, positive correlations with species richness. In contrast, correlations between functional metrics and taxonomic distinctness ranged from slightly negative to strongly positive, depending on the relative habitat heterogeneity, and on the resource involved in the between-species interaction. Strong positive correlations between taxonomic distinctness and the fraction of interactive species occurred for resources with few producer species per consumer species, and we suggest that taxonomic distinctness is consistently correlated with conservation worth. With its favourable sampling properties and data requirements, this taxonomic distinctness measure is a promising tool for biodiversity research and for environmental monitoring and management.
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