Breeding birds on small islands: Island biogeography or optimal foraging?

Gareth J. Russell, Jared M. Diamond, Timothy M. Reed, Stuart L. Pimm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


1. We test MacArthur and Wilson's theory about the biogeography of communities on isolated habitat patches using bird breeding records from 16 small islands off the coasts of Britain and Ireland. 2. A traditional examination of patterns of species richness on these islands suggests that area and habitat diversity are important predictors, but that isolation and latitude have a negligible impact in this system. 3. Unlike traditional studies, we directly examine the fundamental processes of colonization and local extinction (cessation of breeding), rather than higher-order phenomena such as species richness. 4. We find that many of MacArthur and Wilson's predictions hold: colonization probability is lower on more isolated islands, and extinction probability is lower on larger islands and those with a greater diversity of habitats. 5. We also find an unexpected pattern: extinction probability is much lower on more isolated islands. This is the strongest relationship in these data, and isolation is the best single predictor of colonization and extinction. 6. Our results show that examination of species richness alone is misleading. Isolation has a strong effect on both of the dynamic processes that underlie richness, and in this system, the reductions in both colonization and extinction probability seen on more distant islands have opposing influences on species richness, and largely cancel each other out. 7. We suggest that an appropriate model for this system might be optimal foraging theory, which predicts that organisms will stay longer in a resource patch if the distance to a neighbouring patch is large. If nest sites and food are the resources in this system, then optimal foraging theory predicts the pattern we observe. 8. We advance the hypothesis that there is a class of spatial systems, defined by their scale and by the taxon under consideration, at which decision-making processes are a key driver of the spatiotemporal dynamics. The appropriate theory for such systems will be a hybrid of concepts from biogeography/metapopulation theory and behavioural ecology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)324-339
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


  • Colonization
  • Extinction
  • Foraging
  • Species-area
  • Turnover


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