Amazonian Extinction Debts

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Science  13 Jul 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6091, pp. 162-163
DOI: 10.1126/science.1224819

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Habitat loss, climate change, and invasive species are the main drivers of the ongoing biodiversity crisis. These human-induced processes may have boosted the background rate of species extinction by 100 to 1000 times (1). However, species do not go extinct immediately when their habitat shrinks, climate changes beyond their tolerance limit, or an invasive species spreads. It may take several generations after an initial impact before the last individual of a species is gone. Conservation biologists are trying to estimate the time lag between habitat perturbation and species extinction. By inverting the reasoning, one can also estimate how many species are headed toward extinction as a function of past and current anthropogenic interference, the “extinction debt” (see the figure) (2). On page 228 of this issue, Wearn et al. (3) apply this approach to the Brazilian rainforest.