Quantifying island isolation – insights from global patterns of insular plant species richness


P. Weigelt, Biodiversity, Macroecology and Conservation Biogeography Group, Univ. of Göttingen, Büsgenweg 1, DE-37077 Göttingen, Germany. E-mail: pweigel@uni-goettingen.de


Isolation is a driving factor of species richness and other island community attributes. Most empirical studies have investigated the effect of isolation measured as distance to the nearest continent. Here we expanded this perspective by comparing the explanatory power of seventeen isolation metrics in sixty-eight variations for vascular plant species richness on 453 islands worldwide. Our objectives were to identify ecologically meaningful metrics and to quantify their relative importance for species richness in a globally representative data set. We considered the distances to the nearest mainland and to other islands, stepping stone distances, the area of surrounding landmasses, prevailing wind and ocean currents and climatic similarity between source and target areas. These factors are closely linked to colonization and maintenance of plant species richness on islands. We tested the metrics in spatial multi-predictor models accounting for area, climate, topography and island geology. Besides area, isolation was the second most important factor determining species richness on the studied islands. A model including the proportion of surrounding land area as the isolation metric had the highest predictive power, explaining 86.1% of the variation. Distances to large islands, stepping stone distances and distances to climatically similar landmasses performed slightly better than distance to the nearest mainland. The effect of isolation was weaker for large islands suggesting that speciation counteracts the negative effect of isolation on immigration on large islands. Continental islands were less affected by isolation than oceanic islands. Our results suggest that a variety of immigration mechanisms influence plant species richness on islands and we show that this can be detected at macro-scales. Although the distance to the nearest mainland is an adequate and easy-to-calculate measure of isolation, accounting for stepping stones, large islands as source landmasses, climatic similarity and the area of surrounding landmasses increases the explanatory power of isolation for species richness.