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Abstract Aim To compare post-eruption biotic recolonization times on mainland and island volcanoes. Location The research involved the study of the recolonization kinetics of Mt Vesuvius (a mainland volcano in southern Italy) and the Island of Vulcano (southern Italy). Comparisons were also made with Jorullo Volcano (Mexico) and Mount St Helens (USA) (two mainland volcanoes) and with Krakatau (Indonesia) (an island volcano). Methods Island volcanoes are expected to possess inherently impoverished faunas and floras, and recolonization after eruption is expected to occur to a low level. In comparison, the recolonization kinetics for a mainland volcano should be characterized by a higher plateau of species, and by species with low dispersal ability. To test this model, recolonization times after the small-scale Plinian eruption of 1631 were calculated for various insect groups of Mt Vesuvius and compared with recolonization times calculated for the Island of Vulcano, which erupted dramatically in 1888. For this purpose, thorough insect checklists, based on exhaustive samplings, were extracted from the literature. Results obtained from Mt Vesuvius and Vulcano were also compared with recolonization times calculated for biotas of other mainland and island volcanoes. Results Insect recolonization times from the 1631 Vesuvius eruption varied according to the ecology of the animal group considered and appeared very long when compared with those obtained for the island volcano of Vulcano. Results obtained from Vulcano also suggest the possibility that this island hosts more species than expected at equilibrium, a state of affairs also found for the butterflies of Krakatau. Main conclusions In keeping with the predictions of multi-phase models developed in island biogeography theory, island volcanoes have a lower species richness at equilibrium than do mainland volcanoes, but might host, in a first phase of recolonization, more species than expected at equilibrium, because ecological space is unsaturated and inter-specific interactions are limited. The lower isolation of mainland volcanoes (allowing higher immigration rates) leads to higher rates and longer periods of recolonization and hence to higher species richness at equilibrium.