One for the Potential list:
First coined by Gilpin & Soulé in 1986, the extinction vortex is the term used to describe the process that declining populations undergo when”a mutual reinforcement occurs among biotic and abiotic processes that drives population size downward to extinction” (Brook, Sodhi & Bradshaw 2008).
Although several types of ‘vortices’ were labelled by Gilpin & Soulé, the concept was subsequently simplified by Caughley (1994) in his famous paper on the declining and small population paradigms, but only truly quantified for the first time by Fagan & Holmes (2006) in their Ecology Letters paper entitled Quantifying the extinction vortex.
Fagan and Holmes compiled a small time-series database of ten vertebrate species (two mammals, five birds, two reptiles and a fish) whose final extinction was witnessed via monitoring. They confirmed that the time to extinction scales to the logarithm of population size. In other words, as populations decline, the time elapsing before extinction occurs becomes rapidly (exponentially) smaller and smaller. They also found greater rates of population decline nearer to the time of extinction than earlier in the population’s history, confirming the expectation that genetic deterioration contributes to a general corrosion of individual performance (fitness). Finally, they found that the variability in abundance was also highest as populations approached extinction, irrespective of population size, thus demonstrating indirectly that random environmental fluctuations take over to cause the final extinction regardless of what caused the population to decline in the first place.
What does this mean for conservation efforts? It was fundamentally the first empirical demonstration that the theory of accelerating extinction proneness occurs as populations decline, meaning that all attempts must be made to ensure large population sizes if there is any chance of maintaining long-term persistence. This relates to the minimum viable population size concept that should underscore each and every recovery and target set or desired for any population in trouble or under conservation scrutiny.