Aim Conservation of species is an ongoing concern.
Methods We examined historical extinction rates for birds and mammals and contrasted island and continental extinctions. Australia was included as an island because of its isolation.
Results Only six continental birds and three continental mammals were recorded in standard databases as going extinct since 1500 compared to 123 bird species and 58 mammal species on islands. Of the extinctions, 95% were on islands. On a per unit area basis, the extinction rate on islands was 177 times higher for mammals and 187 times higher for birds than on continents. The continental mammal extinction rate was between 0.89 and 7.4 times the background rate, whereas the island mammal extinction rate was between 82 and 702 times background. The continental bird extinction rate was between 0.69 and 5.9 times the background rate, whereas for islands it was between 98 and 844 times the background rate. Undocumented prehistoric extinctions, particularly on islands, amplify these trends. Island extinction rates are much higher than continental rates largely because of introductions of alien predators (including man) and diseases.
Main conclusions Our analysis suggests that conservation strategies for birds and mammals on continents should not be based on island extinction rates and that on islands the key factor to enhance conservation is to alleviate pressures from uncontrolled hunting and predation.