Overharvesting by humans threatens a substantial fraction of endangered species. Reserves have recently received enormous attention as a means of better conserving harvested resources, despite limited empirical evidence of their efficacy. We used manipulated microcosms to test whether reserves reduce extinction risk in mobile populations of harvested Tetrahymena thermophila, a ciliate. Here we show that patterns of population distribution inside and outside reserves can be accurately predicted on the basis of simple models of diffusion coupled with logistic controls on local population growth. No extinctions occurred in eight experimental trials with reserves, whereas extinction occurred in seven of eight trials without reserves, as predicted by population viability models based on stochastic population processes. These results suggest that marine reserves may be an effective means of improving long-term viability in heavily harvested fish species.
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