Aim To estimate population extinction rates within freshwater fish communities since the fragmentation of palaeo-rivers due to sea level rise at the end of the Pleistocene; to combine this information with rates estimated by other approaches (population surveys, fossil records); and to build an empirical extinction–area relationship.
Location Temperate rivers from the Northern Hemisphere, with a special focus on rivers discharging into the English Channel, in north-western France.
Methods (1) French rivers. We used a faunal relaxation approach to estimate extinction rates in coastal rivers after they became isolated by the sea level rise. Tributaries within the Seine were used to build a species–area relationship for a non-fragmented river system to predict species richness in coastal rivers before their fragmentation. (2) Other rivers. Extinction rates obtained for four other Holarctic river systems fragmented at the end of the Pleistocene, the fragmented populations of one salmonid species (Japan) and the fossil records from the Mississippi Basin were included in the study.
Results (1) French rivers. Within strictly freshwater fish species, rare and/or habitat specialist species were the most affected by fragmentation. In contrast, euryhaline species were not affected. A negative relationship between extinction rate and river basin size was observed. (2) Other rivers. Our study established a common scaling relationship for freshwater fish population extinction rates that spans seven orders of magnitude in river basin size.
Main conclusions This study strongly suggests that extinctions of fish populations occurred within French coastal rivers after they became isolated 8000 years ago. The patterns observed at regional and inter-continental scales are consistent with the expectation that large populations are less prone to extinction than small ones, resulting in a strong extinction–area relationship coherent over a large spatio-temporal scale. Our study is the first multi-scale quantitative assessment of background extinction patterns for freshwater fishes.