Metapopulations and metacommunities: combining spatial and temporal perspectives in plant ecology


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1. Metapopulation and metacommunity theories occupy a central role in ecology, but can be difficult to apply to plants. Challenges include whether seed dispersal is sufficient for population connectivity, the role of seed banks and problems with studying colonization and extinction in long-lived and clonal plants. Further, populations often do not occupy discrete habitat patches. Despite these difficulties, we present case studies to illustrate explicit integration of spatial and temporal data in plant ecology.

2. First, on the population level, we focused on two early successional species that lack discrete habitat patches. Multi-year data sets taken with a grid approach and simple models permit the analysis of landscape dynamics that reflect regional as well as local processes. Using Silene latifolia, we examined colonization. We found evidence for seed dispersal and connectivity among populations across a large landscape. With Helianthus annuus, a species with seed banks, we determined the degree to which landscape-level patterns of abundance were predicted by local processes (previous year recruitment at a site plus seed banks) vs. seed dispersal. Local processes dominated dynamics.

3. Second, at the community level, we utilized a landscape-level experiment to examine the influence of environmental gradients and spatial processes (dispersal limitation) on community composition during 18 years of succession. Throughout succession, environmental and spatial factors both contributed significantly to spatial variation in species composition (beta diversity). When connectivity was disrupted, space was the dominant factor underlying beta diversity, and this did not change over time. Across more connected communities, spatial effects diminished over succession as the importance of environmental factors increased, consistent with species-sorting metacommunity models.

4.Synthesis. Metapopulation/metacommunity concepts emphasize the interaction between space and time in ecological processes. Spatial processes, such as long-distance dispersal, play a crucial role in creating new populations. Temporal processes, including seed banks, may dominate dynamics at both local and regional scales. The relative importance of spatial vs. temporal processes changes as populations persist and communities assemble over time; these patterns may only emerge after many years. Integrating long-term data with spatial data is thus essential for understanding spatio-temporal patterns inherent in metapopulation and metacommunity theories.