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the most extreme in the past 65 million years. In at least one important respect, the modern episode exceeds anything in the geological past. In the earlier mass extinctions, which some scientists believe were caused by large meteorite strikes, most of the plants survived even though animal diversity was severely reduced. Now, for the first time, plant diversity is declining sharply (Knoll, 1984).
HOW FAST IS DIVERSITY DECLINING?
The area-species curves of island systems, that is, the quantitative relationship between the area of islands and the number of species that can persist on the islands, provide minimal estimates of the reduction of species diversity that will eventually occur in the rain forests. But how long is “eventually”? This is a difficult question that biogeographers have attacked with considerable ingenuity. When a forest is reduced from, say, 100 square kilometers to 10 square kilometers by clearing, some immediate extinction is likely. However, the new equilibrium will not be reached all at once. Some species will hang on for a while in dangerously reduced populations. Elementary mathematical models of the process predict that the number of species in the 10-square-kilometer plot will decline at a steadily decelerating rate, i.e., they will decay exponentially to the lower level.
Studies by Jared Diamond and John Terborgh have led to the estimation of the decay constants for the bird faunas on naturally occurring islands (Diamond, 1972, 1984; Terborgh, 1974). These investigators took advantage of the fact that rising sea levels 10,000 years ago cut off small land masses that had previously been connected to South America, New Guinea, and the main islands of Indonesia. For example, Tobago, Margarita, Coiba, and Trinidad were originally part of the South American mainland and shared the rich bird fauna of that continent. Thus they are called land-bridge islands. In a similar manner, Yapen, Aru, and Misol were connected to New Guinea. In the study of the South American land-bridge islands, Terborgh found that the smaller the island, the higher the estimated decay constant and hence extinction rate. Terborgh then turned to Barro Colorado Island, which was isolated for the first time by the rise of Gatun Lake during the construction of the Panama Canal. Applying the natural land-bridge extinction curve to an island of this size (17 square kilometers) and fitting the derived decay constant to the actual period of isolation (50 years), Terborgh predicted an extinction of 17 bird species. The actual number known to have vanished as a probable result of insularization is 13, or 12% of the 108 breeding species originally present. The extinction rates of bird species on Barro Colorado Island were based on careful studies by E.O.Willis and J.R.Karr and have been recently reviewed by Diamond (1984).
Several other studies of recently created islands of both tropical and temperate-zone woodland have produced similar results, which can be crudely summarized as follows: when the islands range from 1 to 25 square kilometers—the size of many smaller parks and reserves—the rate of extinction of bird species during the first 100 years is 10 to 50%. Also as predicted, the extinction rate is highest in the smaller patches, and it rises steeply when the area drops below 1 square kilometer. To take one example provided by Willis (1979), three patches of subtropical forest