Island biogeography: Taking the long view of nature’s laboratories

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  01 Sep 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6354, eaam8326
DOI: 10.1126/science.aam8326

You are currently viewing the abstract.

View Full Text

Dynamics of island biodiversity

Fifty years ago, MacArthur and Wilson published their influential book, The Theory of Island Biogeography. This work provided a quantitative framework for understanding the ecological processes governing the diversity of species on oceanic islands. Whittaker et al. review the subsequent progress in the field, focusing particularly on the integration of the ecological model with island geophysical dynamics. Recent work is showing how immigration, speciation, and extinction respond to the phases of emergence, development, and submergence in oceanic islands.

Science, this issue p. eaam8326

Structured Abstract


Ever since Darwin, natural scientists have turned to islands for inspiration and for model systems. For the past half century, they have done so largely within the paradigm established by Robert H. MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson’s Theory of Island Biogeography, which provided a quantitative, dynamic framework, based upon assumptions of geographically predictable patterns of immigration, extinction, and speciation. Although this approach has proven productive, its application to remote archipelagos and evolutionary time scales has been hampered by a rather static view of islands themselves, despite mounting evidence of their dynamism as platforms. We review recent progress in integrating the largely ecological thinking of their theory with insights on the longer-term dynamics of both the islands and their biotas.


Classification and analysis of marine islands by their geophysical dynamics, and of their species by how they colonized, provides a step toward a more nuanced biogeography out of which new insights are already emerging. This perspective is exemplified by the general dynamic model of oceanic island biogeography, which predicts how immigration, speciation, and extinction respond to the typical life cycle of hotspot islands, with phases of emergence, development, and submergence. The model successfully predicts such emergent patterns as the occurrence of peak diversification on youthful, expanding islands with maximum vacant niche space. Diversity patterns analyzed for large numbers of data sets have confirmed the importance of in situ evolutionary dynamics on remote archipelagos, which typically possess steep island species–area relationships, especially for endemic taxa. We may infer that variations in propagule flow among islands within archipelagos are important in modulating these emergent diversity patterns. There is, for example, good support for an “island progression rule” in which older land masses donate colonists to younger islands (consistent with the generalization of islands as “sinks”), but there is also increasing evidence of “reverse colonization,” including from islands to continental regions. Advances are also being made in linking such island biogeographical models with the classic traits and syndromes of insular species, although this first demands that previous generalizations are rigorously reexamined using expanded data sets and modern techniques of analysis. A classic insular syndrome is the loss of dispersability of formerly dispersive species following island colonization, for which there is now good evidence for several taxa, including many genera of land birds. Yet, paradoxically, and perhaps controversially, it has also been inferred that many species of plants lacking specialized dispersal adaptations can colonize quite remote islands, often by nonstandard means of transport. Unfortunately, island evolutionary syndromes, such as loss of flight in birds, frequently predispose species to heightened extinction risk when islands are colonized and transformed by humans, as we also document.


Developments in theory and in analytical and modeling capabilities within biological and Earth system science, and the pooling of large numbers of data sets, enhancing statistical power, collectively hold the promise of a new synthesis in island biogeography. This synthesis will need to accommodate evidence of the long-term dynamics of remote island systems, whereby some lineages persist far longer than any particular island platform, while others founder as their sole island home sinks under the waves. The promise is of a biogeography in the tradition of the MacArthur–Wilson theory, generating and testing predictive models, but extended to accommodate a more sophisticated suite of insular geological and environmental dynamics, combined with a fuller understanding of patterns and processes of gene flow within and between archipelagos.

Islands provide model systems for the investigation of the fundamental biogeographical processes of migration, diversification, and extinction, as discussed herein with emphasis on long-term dynamics.


Islands provide classic model biological systems. We review how growing appreciation of geoenvironmental dynamics of marine islands has led to advances in island biogeographic theory accommodating both evolutionary and ecological phenomena. Recognition of distinct island geodynamics permits general models to be developed and modified to account for patterns of diversity, diversification, lineage development, and trait evolution within and across island archipelagos. Emergent patterns of diversity include predictable variation in island species–area relationships, progression rule colonization from older to younger land masses, and syndromes including loss of dispersability and secondary woodiness in herbaceous plant lineages. Further developments in Earth system science, molecular biology, and trait data for islands hold continued promise for unlocking many of the unresolved questions in evolutionary biology and biogeography.

View Full Text