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Integration of palaeontological, historical, and geographical data on the extinction of koa-finches

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Identifying the root causes of extinction or endangerment requires long chronological records that begin before a population started to decline and extend until its extinction or functional extinction. We present a case study of the koa-finches, genus Rhodacanthis, an extinct group of Hawaiian honeycreepers that was specialized to feed on green pods and seeds of the koa tree or other leguminous plants. Six island populations of koa-finches are known; four in the Holocene fossil record and two that survived until the 1890s. We document the palaeoecological context of the fossils and identify constraints on the age span of the specimen record for each population using stratigraphic contexts, associated radiometric determinations, and museum specimen data. We estimate the potential geographical range of koa-finches at the time of human arrival using two methods: assessment of their historical and palaeo-habitats, and geographical information system mapping of the pre-human distribution of the koa plant (Acacia koa) and its sister species, the koai‘a plant (Acacia koaia). After integrating the foregoing data with chronological records and distributional maps of the potential forcing agents of extinction, we conclude that at least two extinctions of island populations were due to ecological change in the lowlands in the prehistorical and perhaps the early historical periods. In the same time frame, the koa-finch populations on Hawai‘i Island became rare and restricted to upland refugia, making them vulnerable to the upland forest harvesting and degradation that was accelerating in the 1890s. Neither climatic variation nor mosquito-vectored diseases are likely to have caused the observed extinctions. This study illustrates an approach that can be applied to many other extinct and endangered island species to better understand the causes of high extinction rates in the human era.
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Keywords: Drepanidini; Hawaiian finches; Hawaiian honeycreepers; extinction risk; geographical range; human impacts

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, Hilo, HI 96720, USA

Publication date: May 1, 2008

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