Following habitat fragmentation, the remnant faunal community will undergo a period of species loss or ‘relaxation.’ Theory predicts that species with particular life-history traits, such as a small population size, small geographical range, low fecundity and large body size, should be more vulnerable to fragmentation. In this study, we investigated the relationships between the above life-history traits and the fragmentation vulnerability index (the number of islands occupied) of five lizard species inhabiting recently isolated land-bridge islands in the Thousand Island Lake, China. Data on life-history traits were collected from field surveys (population density) and from the literature (body size, clutch size and geographical range size). The species–area relationships for lizards sampled from the mainland versus on the islands differed significantly (i.e. the number of species inhabiting islands was decreased relative to similar-sized areas on the mainland), indicating that species extinction has occurred on all of the study islands following isolation. For the fragmentation vulnerability index, model selection based on Akaike's information criterion identified natural density at mainland sites as the best correlate of vulnerability to fragmentation, supporting the hypothesis that rare species are most vulnerable to local extinction and will be lost first from fragmented landscapes. In contrast, there was little evidence for an effect of lizards' snout–vent length, clutch size or geographical range size on fragmentation vulnerability. Identification of species traits that render some species more vulnerable to fragmentation than others has important implications for conservation and can be used to aid direct management efforts.