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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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Figure 1

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Metapopulation swapping experiments

The Metapopulation Swapping experiments followed the same protocols as the two Metapopulation experiments described in the text, again having two replicate systems operating simultaneously in the same environmental chamber and given identical inoculations of mites. In the "swapping" replicate of this experiment, on each census date plants were paired at random and the locations of paired plants were interchanged; in the "control" replicate plants remained in place. All other experimental procedures were the same as in the Metapopulation experiments described in the text. The figure below shows the fluctuations in the total density of prey (circles) and predatory (triangles) mites in the control (open symbols) and swapping (solid symbols) replicates. The experimental results are consistent with our conclusion that spatial pattern did not play an important role in the dynamics of the Metapopulation systems, in that a significant manipulation of the populations' spatial structure had very little effect on short-term dynamics. However the duration of the swapping experiment was only 91d, which is shorter than the extinction time of the SuperIsland experiment and consequently too brief to determine if long-term persistence would occur.

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Ellner, S., McCauley, E., Kendall, B. et al. Habitat structure and population persistence in an experimental community. Nature 412, 538–543 (2001).

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