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  1. Abstract

    Rarity is a population characteristic that is usually associated with a high risk of extinction. We argue here, however, that chronically rare species (those with low population densities over many generations across their entire ranges) may have individual‐level traits that make populations more resistant to extinction. The major obstacle to persistence at low density is successful fertilisation (union between egg and sperm), and chronically rare species are more likely to survive when (1) fertilisation occurs inside or close to an adult, (2) mate choice involves long‐distance signals, (3) adults or their surrogate gamete dispersers are highly mobile, or (4) the two sexes are combined in a single individual. In contrast, external fertilisation and wind‐ or water‐driven passive dispersal of gametes, or sluggish or sedentary adult life habits in the absence of gamete vectors, appear to be incompatible with sustained rarity. We suggest that the documented increase in frequency of these traits among marine genera over geological time could explain observed secular decreases in rates of background extinction. Unanswered questions remain about how common chronic rarity actually is, which traits are consistently associated with chronic rarity, and how chronically rare species are distributed among taxa, and among the world's ecosystems and regions.

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