Natural Extinction on Islands [and Discussion]

M. Williamson, C. B. Goodhart, D. A. Webb, J. Cohen


Almost all recent extinction of species or subspecies on islands comes from human activities. On the other hand, in local populations there is much natural extinction and immigration, i.e. turnover, on small islands. Most of this turnover occurs in locally rare species, and attests to the phenomenon of minimum viable population size. The MacArthur-Wilson theory is based on this turnover which, from an ecological point of view, is generally trivial. More useful theories of minimum viable population size are being developed. Rarity is the precursor of extinction, and species can be rare in several ways. Models of these phenomena are still primitive, particularly those that relate habitat availability to population density. Models of interactive communities show phenomena that may be relevant to the understanding of extinction in the geological record. Lotka-Volterra equations indicate considerable sensitivity to invasions, sometimes producing a cascade of extinction. Chemostat equations show that the behaviour of food chains can change dramatically with small changes in parameters, suggesting that small environmental effects can sometimes cause large ecological changes, including extinctions, in interactive biotic communities.

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