Classics: The Living Dead

30 08 2008

‘Classics’ is a category of posts highlighting research that has made a real difference to biodiversity conservation. All posts in this category will be permanently displayed on the Classics page of

Zombie_ElephantTilman, D., May, R.M., Lehman, C.L., Nowak, M.A. (1994) Habitat destruction and the extinction debt. Nature 371, 65-66

In my opinion, this is truly a conservation classic because it shatters optimistic notions that extinction is something only rarely the consequence of human activities (see relevant post here). The concept of ‘extinction debt‘ is pretty simple – as habitats become increasingly fragmented, long-lived species that are reproductively isolated from conspecifics may take generations to die off (e.g., large trees in forest fragments). This gives rise to a higher number of species than would be otherwise expected for the size of the fragment, and the false impression that many species can persist in habitat patches that are too small to sustain minimum viable populations.

These ‘living dead‘ or ‘zombie‘ species are therefore committed to extinction regardless of whether habitat loss is arrested or reversed. Only by assisted dispersal and/or reproduction can such species survive (an extremely rare event).

Why has this been important? Well, neglecting the extinction debt is one reason why some people have over-estimated the value of fragmented and secondary forests in guarding species against extinction (see relevant example here for the tropics and Brook et al. 2006). It basically means that biological communities are much less resilient to fragmentation than would otherwise be expected given data on species presence collected shortly after the main habitat degradation or destruction event. To appreciate fully the extent of expected extinctions may take generations (e.g., hundreds of years) to come to light, giving us yet another tool in the quest to minimise habitat loss and fragmentation.

CJA Bradshaw

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