Habitat structure and population persistence in an experimental community


Understanding spatial population dynamics is fundamental for many questions in ecology and conservation1,2,3,4. Many theoretical mechanisms have been proposed whereby spatial structure can promote population persistence, in particular for exploiter–victim systems (host–parasite/pathogen, predator–prey) whose interactions are inherently oscillatory and therefore prone to extinction of local populations5,6,7,8,9,10,11. Experiments have confirmed that spatial structure can extend persistence11,12,13,14,15,16, but it has rarely been possible to identify the specific mechanisms involved. Here we use a model-based approach to identify the effects of spatial population processes in experimental systems of bean plants (Phaseolus lunatus), herbivorous mites (Tetranychus urticae) and predatory mites (Phytoseiulus persimilis). On isolated plants, and in a spatially undivided experimental system of 90 plants, prey and predator populations collapsed; however, introducing habitat structure allowed long-term persistence. Using mechanistic models, we determine that spatial population structure did not contribute to persistence, and spatially explicit models are not needed. Rather, habitat structure reduced the success of predators at locating prey outbreaks, allowing between-plant asynchrony of local population cycles due to random colonization events.

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Figure 1: Experimental layouts and results.
Figure 2: Examples of mite population dynamics on a single plant, from run B of the metapopulation experiment.
Figure 3: Total prey and predator mite densities in consecutive replicate runs of the simulation models.
Figure 4: Summary measures of temporal patterns in model output and experimental results.


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We thank E. van Gool for assistance with the experiments. This work was undertaken as part of the Working Group on Complex Population Dynamics at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a centre funded by the US National Science Foundation, University of California–Santa Barbara, and the State of California. A.J. and M.W.S. carried out experiments; E.M., B.E.K., C.J.B. and S.N.W. conceived and fitted colonization models; S.P.E., S.N.W., P.R.H., A.J., P.T., R.M.N. and W.W.N. conceived and fitted structured population models; S.P.E., P.R.H., S.N.W. and C.J.B. implemented the models; S.P.E., E.M. and B.E.K. carried out comparisons of models with data; and S.P.E., E.M., A.J., M.W.S. and P.R.H. prepared the original manuscript.

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Correspondence to Stephen P. Ellner.

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Metapopulation swapping experiments

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