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Study of islands reveals surprising extinction results

f new, exotic plants and animals. In New Zealand, for example, there were about 2,000 native species of plants. Since colonization, about 2,000 new plant species have become naturalized. Over the same period, there have been few plant extinctions, so the net effect is that humans have transformed New Zealand's landscape by bringing in so many new species.

Sax, a former postdoctoral researcher at UCSB who is now assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University, did much of the fact-finding for this report by painstakingly digging through data that had been collected over hundreds of years on islands around the world. "This is Dov's specialty," Gaines said. "Finding really old data sets that are very interesting."

"The dramatic increase in the number of species has changed how the system functions," Sax said. "Changing the abundance of natives versus exotics affects all of the other species that used to depend on the natives for food or shelter. So, it's not in any way to say that increasing biodiversity is a good thing."

With birds, it's a different story. The number of bird species on islands today is almost exactly the same as it was prior to human colonization, but the species of birds on the islands are very different. About 40 percent of the species of birds that you find on islands today are introduced species, Sax said, which means that a comparable number of birds has gone extinct. "In the case of birds," he said, "lots of extinctions, no change in total biodiversity."

All of this caused Gaines and Sax to ask new questions:

  • Are the islands undersaturated? Can you still keep throwing species in there, with the result that nothing is going to happen?

  • Are they now oversaturated? Are there limits in how many species an ecosystem can hold?

  • Are we building an extinction debt? "Which means," Gaines said, "that by going in and mucking up the system, we may hav

Contact: George Foulsham
University of California - Santa Barbara

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