Long transient times in response to decreasing habitat area and increasing isolation may cause the present plant species distribution to reflect the historical rather than the present landscape configuration, resulting in a so-called extinction debt. To investigate how plant species richness is shaped by both present and historical landscape configuration and local environmental conditions in fragmented calcareous grasslands, 64 sites in Southern Belgium were surveyed for their total species richness and environmental characteristics. Species were subdivided in specialist and generalist groups and the former were clustered into emergent groups (EGs) according to 16 relevant life-history traits. Four specialist emergent groups were derived: orchids, rosette species, annuals and half-rosette species. Both specialist and generalist species richness increased with present fragment area, while present fragment connectivity only affected the number of specialist species. This trend was maintained for most EGs, although habitat area was mostly more important than connectivity. All species groups responded to an insolation gradient, except EGs of rosette and annual species. Differential response to fragmentation among emergent groups could be interpreted in terms of dispersal and persistence traits. No relation between species richness and historical area or connectivity was found, making an extinction debt unlikely. Hence, present-day variation in plant species diversity seems to be no legacy of past landscape configuration. Our results clearly indicate that plant species may be quickly lost in response to new fragmentation events. To restore plant diversity, management should focus both on mitigating landscape fragmentation and restoring habitat quality. (c) 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.