Unpaid extinction debts for endemic plants and invertebrates as a legacy of habitat loss on oceanic islands
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Aim: The majority of documented extinctions world-wide in the last four centuries are of species endemic to islands. However, the phenomenon of delayed extinctions as a result of habitat loss has rarely been assessed on oceanic islands. In this study, we tested whether extinction debt (ED), in general, occurs on islands and for which taxonomical groups this phenomenon is most pronounced by assessing ED for multiple endemic taxa and for each of the main altitudinal ecosystems in a well-studied oceanic archipelago. Location: Canary Islands. Methods: We characterized habitat preferences for all endemic species of several taxonomic groups (vascular plants, ground and darkling beetles, flies and land snails). Using generalized linear mixed models and available data about habitat distributions, we tested for all taxa and habitat types to determine whether past habitat area better explained current richness of habitat specialists than current habitat area. If so, an extinction debt can be assumed. Results: For all five major habitat types and five taxonomic groups studied, present-day richness of habitat specialists fitted better with past than current habitat area, evidencing habitat-and taxon-specific extinction debts. This pattern was consistent for both long-lived vascular plants and short-lived invertebrates. Single island endemics in each taxonomic group showed steeper slopes of the species–area relationship (SAR) compared to archipelago endemics indicating higher sensitivity to habitat loss which might increase sizes of ED. Conclusion: Despite differences in species’ generation times, plants and invertebrates showed delayed extinctions after habitat destruction in the Canary Islands. Our SAR approach suggests that a considerable number of Canary Island endemics will eventually become extinct in the future without further habitat loss. The case of the Canary archipelago is probably not unique. Hence, we interpret our results as a warning for island conservationists that the worst of the extinction crisis on oceanic islands might be yet to come. Conservation actions should focus on habitat restoration to attenuate or reverse current extinction processes.