The high extinction risk of small populations is commonly explained by reductions in fecundity and breeder survival associated with demographic and environmental stochasticity. However, ecological theory suggests that population extinctions may also arise from reductions in the number of floaters able to replace the lost breeders. This can be particularly plausible under harsh fragmentation scenarios, where species must survive as small populations subjected to severe effects of stochasticity. Using a woodpecker study in fragmented habitats (2004–2016), we provide here empirical support for the largely neglected hypothesis that floaters buffer population extirpation risks. After controlling for population size, patch size and the intrinsic quality of habitat, populations in patches with floaters had a lower extinction probability than populations in patches without floaters (0.013 versus 0.131). Floaters, which often replace the lost breeders, were less likely to occur in small and low-quality patches, showing that population extirpations may arise from unnoticed reductions in floater numbers in poor-quality habitats. We argue that adequate pools of the typically overlooked floaters may buffer extirpation risks by reducing the detrimental impacts of demographic and environmental stochasticity. However, unravelling the influence of floaters in buffering stochastic effects and promoting population stability require additional studies in an ample array of species and stochastic scenarios.
- Received January 12, 2017.
- Accepted March 17, 2017.
- © 2017 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.