Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 163–168
Spatially separated populations of many species fluctuate synchronously. Synchrony typically decays with increasing interpopulation distance. Spatial synchrony, and its distance decay, might reflect distance decay of environmental synchrony (the Moran effect), and/or short-distance dispersal. However, short-distance dispersal can synchronize entire metapopulations if within-patch dynamics are cyclic, a phenomenon known as phase locking. We manipulated the presence/absence of short-distance dispersal and spatially decaying environmental synchrony and examined their separate and interactive effects on the synchrony of the protist prey species Tetrahymena pyriformis growing in spatial arrays of patches (laboratory microcosms). The protist predator Euplotes patella consumed Tetrahymena and generated predator–prey cycles. Dispersal increased prey synchrony uniformly over both short and long distances, and did so by entraining the phases of the predator–prey cycles. The Moran effect also increased prey synchrony, but only over short distances where environmental synchrony was strongest, and did so by increasing the synchrony of stochastic fluctuations superimposed on the predator–prey cycle. Our results provide the first experimental demonstration of distance decay of synchrony due to distance decay of the Moran effect. Distance decay of the Moran effect likely explains distance decay of synchrony in many natural systems. Our results also provide an experimental demonstration of long-distance phase locking, and explain why cyclic populations provide many of the most dramatic examples of long-distance spatial synchrony in nature.