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Keywords:

  • Ecological community;
  • food web;
  • relaxation time;
  • secondary extinction;
  • species interactions;
  • species loss;
  • species richness;
  • top predators;
  • trophic level

Abstract

The large vulnerability of top predators to human-induced disturbances on ecosystems is a matter of growing concern. Because top predators often exert strong influence on their prey populations their extinction can have far-reaching consequences for the structure and functioning of ecosystems. It has, for example, been observed that the local loss of a predator can trigger a cascade of secondary extinctions. However, the time lags involved in such secondary extinctions remain unexplored. Here we show that the loss of a top predator leads to a significantly earlier onset of secondary extinctions in model communities than does the loss of a species from other trophic levels. Moreover, in most cases time to secondary extinction increases with increasing species richness. If local secondary extinctions occur early they are less likely to be balanced by immigration of species from local communities nearby. The implications of these results for community persistence and conservation priorities are discussed.