Extinction debt for plants and flower-visiting insects in landscapes with contrasting land use history




Species are lost world-wide because of habitat destruction and fragmentation. Impacted communities can exhibit transient dynamics in response to such environmental changes, where slow extinctions and immigration delay the arrival to a new equilibrium. Life history traits such as generation time, resource use and dispersal capacity, as well as landscape history can be expected to affect possible extinction debt, but few have examined this for multiple taxa in the same study and particularly so for arthropods. The aim was to assess under which current and historical land use circumstances an extinction debt occurs for vascular plants and three insect taxa.


South-eastern Sweden.


We sampled current species richness of habitat specialist and generalist butterflies, bees, hoverflies, and vascular plants in 45 dry to mesic semi-natural grassland fragments of various size and degree of connectivity, and situated in landscapes with contrasting land use conversion history. Habitat loss was estimated in each landscape by comparing modern maps to ~45 year old digitized aerial photographs. An extinction debt can be assumed if historical habitat size and connectivity better explain current species distribution than current habitat variables do.


Bees responded rapidly to habitat loss possibly as a result of their primary nesting resource being destroyed. Interestingly, species richness of specialist plants was best explained by historical habitat connectivity, richness of hoverflies by historical habitat area, and richness of butterflies by both historical habitat area and connectivity, indicating extinction debt for these taxa. Habitat generalist butterflies and hoverflies, but not plants and bees, exhibited extinction debt mainly in relation to habitat area. No effect of landscape type was found on the observed extinction debt.

Main conclusions

Slow extinctions of persistent and long-lived plants might explain extinction debt for both plants and herbivorous insects linked to these plants.