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Spatial and temporal synchrony in reptile population dynamics in variable environments

Abstract

Resources are seldom distributed equally across space, but many species exhibit spatially synchronous population dynamics. Such synchrony suggests the operation of large-scale external drivers, such as rainfall or wildfire, or the influence of oasis sites that provide water, shelter, or other resources. However, testing the generality of these factors is not easy, especially in variable environments. Using a long-term dataset (13–22 years) from a large (8000 km2) study region in arid Central Australia, we tested firstly for regional synchrony in annual rainfall and the dynamics of six reptile species across nine widely separated sites. For species that showed synchronous spatial dynamics, we then used multivariate follow a multivariate auto-regressive state–space (MARSS) models to predict that regional rainfall would be positively associated with their populations. For asynchronous species, we used MARSS models to explore four other possible population structures: (1) populations were asynchronous, (2) differed between oasis and non-oasis sites, (3) differed between burnt and unburnt sites, or (4) differed between three sub-regions with different rainfall gradients. Only one species showed evidence of spatial population synchrony and our results provide little evidence that rainfall synchronizes reptile populations. The oasis or the wildfire hypotheses were the best-fitting models for the other five species. Thus, our six study species appear generally to be structured in space into one or two populations across the study region. Our findings suggest that for arid-dwelling reptile populations, spatial and temporal dynamics are structured by abiotic events, but individual responses to covariates at smaller spatial scales are complex and poorly understood.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Bush Heritage Australia, H. Jukes, G. McDonald, D. Smith and G. Woods for allowing access to the properties in the study region, members of the Desert Ecology Research Group, especially B. Tamayo, D. Nelson and C.-L. Beh, and many volunteers for valuable assistance in the field. Funding was provided by the Australian Research Council and the Australian Government’s Terrestrial Ecosystems Research Network (www.tern.gov.au), an Australian research infrastructure facility established under the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy and Education Infrastructure Fund––Super Science Initiative through the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education. ACG was supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award and CRD by an Australian Research Council Fellowship.

Author contribution statement

The study was designed by AG, with input from GW, CD and VN. AG and VN performed the analyses, and AG wrote the first draft of the manuscript. AG, GW and CD collected the data. GW, CD and VN contributed substantially to all revisions of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Aaron C. Greenville.

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Communicated by Jean-François Le Galliard.

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Greenville, A.C., Wardle, G.M., Nguyen, V. et al. Spatial and temporal synchrony in reptile population dynamics in variable environments. Oecologia 182, 475–485 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-016-3672-8

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Keywords

  • Population dynamics
  • Simpson Desert
  • Population structure
  • Moran’s theorem
  • Wildfire