In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Island Biogeography Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Tests of the Theory
  • The Species-Area Relationship
  • The Equilibrium Model
  • Demography of Colonization and Extinction
  • Community Assembly and the Importance of Competition
  • Dispersal Between Islands

Ecology Island Biogeography Theory
Gonçalo Ferraz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0031


When it was first formulated in the 1960s, The theory of island biogeography offered a bold and ingenious explanation for patterns in the distribution and abundance of species on islands. The boldness derived, in large part, from the conscious effort to depart from historical explanations and offer simple equilibrium solutions to predict the diversity and evolution of island species. The ingenuity was evident in the simplicity and elegance of explanations in the theory’s two most resilient ideas: the equilibrium model of island biogeography, and the taxon cycle of insular evolution. The appealing graphical formulation of the equilibrium model and the ambitious breadth of the taxon cycle, if not always producing correct predictions, certainly motivated a tremendous volume of lively and useful ecological research throughout the last fifty years. But not all of island biogeography theory is about islands. From the earliest stages of the theory’s development, islands were also seen as metaphors for continental habitat isolates, and thus offered a basis for understanding the dynamics of species abundance and distribution on continental landscapes, especially those formed by recognizably discrete habitat patches. This article is organized in three major parts. The first part includes the broadest and most fundamental material organized under four first-level headings: General Overviews, Journals, Historical Background, and Tests of the Theory. The second part addresses the impact of The Theory of Island Biogeography (MacArthur and Wilson 1967, cited under General Overviews), examining the topic of each chapter, starting with chapter 2 on Species-Area Relationship and developing throughout seven first-level headings until chapter 8, which was entitled “Prospect.” The final part of the bibliography presents rather detailed content on Applications of island biogeography theory to conservation, grouped under one single first-level heading. The influence of island biogeography theory on ecology has been so deep that it is often difficult to decide whether a given piece does or does not belong in this bibliography. Certainly many relevant readings have been left out, but the material presented here hopefully conveys a stimulating overview of a lively field of research with both tremendous historical importance and the prospect of continuing to offer valuable insights on the distribution and abundance of species.

General Overviews

A number of original articles, reviews, and books provide overviews of island biogeography theory. MacArthur and Wilson 1963 offers their first formulation of the equilibrium model, which posits that an island’s species richness results from a balance of immigration and extinction rates. This view was expanded in MacArthur and Wilson 1967, a seminal book that develops not just the equilibrium model but also Wilson’s ideas of the taxon cycle as a key mechanism of evolution on islands. Seven years later, the publication of Simberloff 1974 provided a broad review of the tenets, predictions, and empirical tests of the theory, both in its equilibrium and evolutionary facets. Two major biogeography textbooks offer more recent overviews, with Lomolino, et al. 2010 giving a two-chapter, in-depth analysis of both equilibrium and evolutionary components, and Cox and Moore 2005 offering a shorter but informative summary with relatively more emphasis on the equilibrium model and its applications. Whittaker and Fernández-Palacios 2007 is necessary reading for anyone seeking an in-depth perspective of the first forty years of island biogeography research after MacArthur and Wilson’s monograph. To complement Whitakker and Fernández-Palácios’ well-crafted compendium, the edited compilation of articles in Losos and Ricklefs 2010 gives a stimulating view of the current diversity and vigor of the ramifications of island biogeography theory.

  • Cox, C. Barry, and Peter D. Moore. 2005. Biogeography: An ecological and evolutionary approach. 7th ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Chapter 7 (pp. 165–200) provides a brief overview of the equilibrium model of island biogeography, summarizes prediction tests, and discusses applicability (or lack thereof) to the design of nature reserves. Sections on colonization and evolution on islands (pp. 179–190) offer rich empirical background and a discussion of the taxon cycle.

  • Lomolino, Mark V., Brett R. Riddle, Robert J. Whittaker, and James H. Brown. 2010. Biogeography. 4th ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

    Chapter 13 (pp. 509–558) offers in-depth review of conceptual basis and empirical tests of the equilibrium predictions of island biogeography theory. Chapter 14 (pp. 559–620) looks away from equilibrium with focus on inter-specific variability, interactions between species and evolution on islands. Openly discusses flaws of the theory while highlighting its heuristic power.

  • Losos, Jonathan B., and Robert E. Ricklefs, eds. 2010. The theory of island biogeography revisited. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Collection of sixteen contributions to a Harvard University symposium commemorating the 40th anniversary of the publication of MacArthur and Wilson’s monograph. All chapters written by leaders in the field. This book provides a high-quality, up-to-date illustration of the far-reaching impact of island biogeography theory in ecology and evolution.

  • MacArthur, Robert H., and Edward O. Wilson. 1963. An equilibrium theory of insular zoogeography. Evolution 17.4: 373–387.

    DOI: 10.2307/2407089

    Mathematical introduction to the equilibrium model and description of the birth-and-death process of temporal change in the number of species. Emphasizes the idea of dynamic equilibrium in island faunas and draws classic predictions of the relation between size, isolation, and number of species.

  • MacArthur, Robert H., and Edward O. Wilson. 1967. The theory of island biogeography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Full presentation of the theory, as a quantitative ahistorical perspective on biogeography. The book includes not just the equilibrium model but also developments on island invasibility, dispersal between islands, and evolutionary changes following colonization. This is Volume 1 of the renowned series Princeton Monographs in Population Biology.

  • Simberloff, Daniel S. 1974. Equilibrium theory of island biogeography and ecology. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 5:161–182.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    Extraordinarily clear and well-documented outline of the predictions of island biogeography theory, well beyond the most superficial relations between island size, isolation, and number of species. Stands out by articulating the colonization-extinction equilibrium and the taxon cycle within a wider set of compromises that shape island biotas.

  • Whittaker, Robert J., and José M. Fernández-Palacios. 2007. Island biogeography: Ecology, evolution, and conservation. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    While offering a thorough review of empirical tests of the equilibrium model of island biogeography, this book also presents an extremely well-documented account of nonequilibrium (or historical) aspects of real and habitat islands. Essential reading for anyone seeking to go beyond the classic perspective on a firm footing.

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