Understanding extinction debts: spatio-temporal scales, mechanisms and a roadmap for future research

8 July 2019

Figueiredo, Ludmilla; Krauss , Jochen; Steffan-Dewenter, Ingolf; Cabral, Juliano Sarmento

Extinction debt refers to delayed species extinctions expected as a consequence of ecosystem perturbation. Quantifying such extinctions and investigating long-term consequences of perturbations has proven challenging, because perturbations are not isolated and occur across various spatial and temporal scales, from local habitat losses to global warming. Additionally, the relative importance of eco-evolutionary processes varies across scales, because levels of ecological organization, i.e., individuals, (meta)populations and (meta)communities, respond hierarchically to perturbations. To summarize our current knowledge of the scales and mechanisms influencing extinction debts, we reviewed recent empirical, theoretical and methodological studies addressing either the spatio-temporal scales of extinction debts or the eco-evolutionary mechanisms delaying extinctions. Extinction debts were detected across a range of ecosystems and taxonomic groups, with estimates ranging from 9-90% of current species richness. The duration over which debts have been sustained varies from 5-570 years, and projections of the total period required to settle a debt can extend to 1000 years. Reported causes of delayed extinctions are i) life-history traits that prolong individual survival, and ii) population and metapopulation dynamics that maintain populations under deteriorated conditions. Other potential factors that may extend survival time such as microevolutionary dynamics, or delayed extinctions of interaction partners, have rarely been analyzed. Therefore, we propose a roadmap for future research with three key avenues: i) the microevolutionary dynamics of extinction processes, ii) the disjunct losses of interacting species and iii) the impact of multiple regimes of perturbation on the payment of debts. For their ability to integrate processes occurring at different levels of ecological organization, we highlight mechanistic simulation models as tools to address these knowledge gaps and to deepen our understanding of extinction dynamics.