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Keywords:

  • Ascension Island;
  • St Helena;
  • zoogeography;
  • insect migration;
  • colonization;
  • island evolution;
  • lava habitats;
  • cave biology;
  • arthropods

Abstract. Terrestrial arthropods were investigated in 1990 and 1995 on Ascension, a young and extremely isolated volcanic island in the equatorial Atlantic. Three new genera (of Araneae, Oribatida and Psocoptera) were discovered and the number of apparently endemic species was increased from fourteen to about twenty-nine. Some 311 species of land animals (a few now extinct) are known to have established themselves on the island; in a few groups there may be significant numbers of unrecorded species. About ninety-five endemic and non-endemic species are considered to be native (including two marine turtles, twelve seabirds and two extinct landbirds); seventy-eight are of doubtful status; and at least 138 were probably introduced by humans. Natural colonists arrived mainly by air (drifting with the wind during migratory movements) but some evidently travelled on floating objects or attached to birds or other animals. Natural colonization was almost entirely from Africa.

Before the arrival of humans, Ascension had an early successional ecosystem. The fauna in the lava and cinder deserts of the lowlands—both on the surface and in subterranean cracks and caves—was dominated by taxonomically varied scavengers and mainly arachnid predators. The scattered angiosperms here and in the foothills supported some host-specific herbivores with associated predators; they were also exploited (especially after exceptional rains) by a number of Orthoptera, Hemiptera and Lepidoptera derived from migratory African populations and perhaps reinforced at intervals by additional groups of colonists. The more extensive and largely cryptogamic vegetation on the central peak had a poor fauna probably composed mainly of micro-arthropods. Along coasts, on islets and in the extensive seabird colonies there were additional arthropod species and also a flightless rail and a night heron (both now extinct).

Invertebrate stocks that colonized Ascension underwent a variety of evolutionary changes including phyletic evolution leading to endemic status, adaptation to subterranean life (Araneae, Pseudoscorpiones, Collembola and Psocoptera), character release (phorid Diptera), and probably splitting of lineages (speciation) within the island (Isopoda, Collembola and gryllid Orthoptera). The relatively high diversity of Pseudoscorpiones (five species in five genera) and their 100% apparent endemicity is notable.

The indigenous fauna of Ascension provides a view of an early stage in the processes of colonization, adaptive evolution and radiation which—over much longer periods—give rise to the richer and more distinctive faunas of older oceanic islands such as Ascension's nearest neighbour, St Helena, where a few invertebrate clades have undergone repetitive speciation and some adaptive radiation.