Ecological Catastrophes and Disturbance Relicts: A Case Study from Easter Island

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Jut Wynne, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ, United States
Caves are often considered buffered environments in terms of their ability to sustain near constant microclimatic conditions. However, environments within cave entrances are expected to respond most quickly to changing surface conditions. We cataloged a relict assemblage of at least 10 endemic arthropods likely restricted to caves and occurring primarily within cave entranceways. Of these animals, eight were considered new undescribed species. These endemic arthropods have persisted in Rapa Nui (Easter Island) caves despite a catastrophic ecological shift induced by island-wide deforestation, fire intolerance, and drought, as well as intensive livestock grazing and surface ecosystems dominated by invasive species. We consider these animals to be “disturbance relicts” – species whose distributions are now limited to areas that experienced minimal human disturbance historically. Today, these species represent one-third of the Rapa Nui’s known endemic arthropods. Given the island’s severely depauperate native fauna, these arthropods should be considered among the highest priority targets for biological conservation. In other regions globally, epigean examples of imperiled disturbance relicts persisting within narrow distributional ranges have been documented. As human activity intensifies, and habitat loss and fragmentation continues worldwide, additional disturbance relicts will be identified. We expect extinction debts, global climate change and interactions with invasive species will challenge the persistence of both hypogean and epigean disturbance relict species.