HABITAT destruction is the major cause of species extinctions1-3. Dominant species often are considered to be free of this threat because they are abundant in the undisturbed fragments that remain after destruction. Here we describe a model that explains multispecies coexistence in patchy habitats4 and which predicts that their abundance may be fleeting. Even moderate habitat destruction is predicted to cause time-delayed but deterministic extinction of the dominant competitor in remnant patches. Further species are predicted to become extinct, in order from the best to the poorest competitors, as habitat destruction increases. More-over, the more fragmented a habitat already is, the greater is the number of extinctions caused by added destruction. Because such extinctions occur generations after fragmentation, they represent a debt—a future ecological cost of current habitat destruction.