To establish a chronology for late Quaternary avian extinction, extirpation and persistence in the Bahamas, thereby testing the relative roles of climate change and human impact as causes of extinction.
Great Abaco Island (Abaco), Bahamas, West Indies.
We analysed the resident bird community as sampled by Pleistocene (> 11.7 ka) and Holocene (< 11.7 ka) fossils. Each species was classified as extinct (lost globally), extirpated (gone from Abaco but persists elsewhere), or extant (still resident on Abaco). We compared patterns of extinction, extirpation and persistence to independent estimates of climate and sea level for glacial (late Pleistocene) and interglacial (Holocene) times.
Of 45 bird species identified in Pleistocene fossils, 25 (56%) no longer occur on Abaco (21 extirpated, 4 extinct). Of 37 species recorded in Holocene deposits, 15 (14 extirpated, 1 extinct; total 41%) no longer exist on Abaco. Of the 30 extant species, 12 were recovered as both Pleistocene and Holocene fossils, as were 9 of the 30 extirpated or extinct species. Most of the extinct or extirpated species that were only recorded from Pleistocene contexts are characteristic of open habitats (pine woodlands or grasslands); several of the extirpated species are currently found only where winters are cooler than in the modern or Pleistocene Bahamas. In contrast, most of the extinct or extirpated species recorded from Holocene contexts are habitat generalists.
The fossil evidence suggests two main times of late Quaternary avian extirpation and extinction in the Bahamas. The first was during the Pleistocene–Holocene transition (PHT; 15–9 ka) and was fuelled by climate change and associated changes in sea level and island area. The second took place during the late Holocene (< 4 ka, perhaps primarily < 1 ka) and can be attributed to human impact. Although some species lost during the PHT are currently found where climates are cooler and drier than in the Bahamas today, a taxonomically and ecologically diverse set of species persisted through that major climate change but did not survive the past millennium of human presence.