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Body size evolution in insular vertebrates: generality of the island rule


  • Mark V. Lomolino

    Corresponding author
      *Mark V. Lomolino, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, 13210 NY, USA.
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This article is corrected by:

  1. Errata: Erratum Volume 35, Issue 1, 191, Article first published online: 13 November 2007

*Mark V. Lomolino, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, 13210 NY, USA.


Aim  My goals here are to (1) assess the generality of the island rule – the graded trend from gigantism in small species to dwarfism in larger species – for mammals and other terrestrial vertebrates on islands and island-like ecosystems; (2) explore some related patterns of body size variation in insular vertebrates, in particular variation in body size as a function of island area and isolation; (3) offer causal explanations for these patterns; and (4) identify promising areas for future studies on body size evolution in insular vertebrates.

Location  Oceanic and near-shore archipelagos, and island-like ecosystems world-wide.

Methods  Body size measurements of insular vertebrates (non-volant mammals, bats, birds, snakes and turtles) were obtained from the literature, and then regression analyses were conducted to test whether body size of insular populations varies as a function of body size of the species on the mainland (the island rule) and with characteristics of the islands (i.e. island isolation and area).

Results  The island rule appears to be a general phenomenon both with mammalian orders (and to some degree within families and particular subfamilies) as well as across the species groups studied, including non-volant mammals, bats, passerine birds, snakes and turtles. In addition, body size of numerous species in these classes of vertebrates varies significantly with island isolation and island area.

Main conclusions  The patterns observed here – the island rule and the tendency for body size among populations of particular species to vary with characteristics of the islands – are actually distinct and scale-dependent phenomena. Patterns within archipelagos reflect the influence of island isolation and area on selective pressures (immigration filters, resource limitation, and intra- and interspecific interactions) within particular species. These patterns contribute to variation about the general trend referred to as the island rule, not the signal for that more general, large-scale pattern. The island rule itself is an emergent pattern resulting from a combination of selective forces whose importance and influence on insular populations vary in a predictable manner along a gradient from relatively small to large species. As a result, body size of insular species tends to converge on a size that is optimal, or fundamental, for a particular bau plan and ecological strategy.

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