• co-evolution;
  • colonization;
  • extinction;
  • habitat distribution;
  • island biogeography;
  • Lesser Antilles;
  • phylogeography;
  • taxon cycles


Taxon cycles are sequential phases of expansion and contraction of the ranges of species, associated generally with shifts in ecological distribution. The important contribution of the taxon cycle to biogeographical analysis is its emphasis on evolutionary and ecological interactions among colonizing and resident species, which influence their extinction dynamics and establish patterns of geographical distribution. Taxon cycles were inferred originally from the distribution of species across island archipelagos, where a correlation was noted between gaps in island occupancy and the degree of phenotypic differentiation. This pattern implied that phases of colonization were followed by range contraction, while endemic Antillean species that were undifferentiated between islands suggested secondary expansion and the beginning of a new cycle. This interpretation was met with scepticism, but reconstruction of phylogenetic relationships from gene sequences has now permitted us to characterize taxon cycles in Lesser Antillean birds. The relative timing of phases of the cycle can be deduced from genetic divergence between island populations. We have found that taxon cycles have periods in the order of 106 years and that cycles in different lineages occur independently of each other and independently of Pleistocene climate cycles. Individual island populations may persist for several millions of years on the larger islands of the Lesser Antilles; occasional expansion phases lead to the replacement of island populations that have disappeared, thus reducing the archipelago-wide rate of extinction to nil. What drives taxon cycles is unknown, but we speculate that they may be caused by co-evolution with enemy populations, and a probable mechanism would involve infrequent mutations influencing parasite virulence and avian host disease resistance. Taxon cycles undoubtedly occur on continents, but the geographical configuration of island archipelagos reveals more clearly their presence and invites their study.