• demography;
  • population ecology;
  • rainfall;
  • rodents;
  • seasonality;
  • tropics

A five-year mark–recapture study of dusky rats (Rattus colletti) on the Adelaide River floodplain, within the Australian wet–dry tropics, revealed substantial spatial and temporal variation in demographic characteristics (abundance, condition, and rates of survival, growth, and reproduction) of the rats. Our data suggest that annual variation in the intensity and timing of monsoonal rainfall during the ‘wet-season’ is the main factor driving the demography of the rats. When total rainfall figures are modified to reflect the magnitude and duration of inundation of the floodplain each year, a link is evident between rainfall patterns and the rat population dynamics. Minor spatial variations in elevation (and hence, in the duration of inundation) across the floodplain engender large differences in rat growth rates, condition factors, survival rates, and the duration of reproductive activity each year. Because these rats have very high reproductive rates, small rain-induced differences in the duration of their reproductive season (i.e. number of litters per year) can cause massive differences in subsequent rat abundances. Hence, rat numbers can be predicted from rainfall patterns during the preceding wet-season. Similar links between rainfall, the duration of breeding, and fluctuations in abundance may typify many rodent populations in tropical and arid regions of the world.