Population synchrony and stability in environmentally forced metacommunities


C. F. Steiner, Dept of Biological Sciences, Biological Sciences Building, 5047 Gullen Mall, Wayne State Univ., Detroit, MI 48202, USA. E-mail: csteiner@wayne.edu


A general prediction from simple metapopulation models is that spatially synchronized forcing can spatially synchronize population dynamics and destabilize metapopulations. In contrast, spatially asynchronous forcing is predicted to decrease population synchrony and promote temporal stability and population persistence, especially in the presence of dispersal. Only recently have studies begun to experimentally address these predictions. Moreover, few studies have experimentally examined how such processes operate in the context of competition communities. Stabilizing processes may continue to operate when placed within a metacommunity context with multiple competing consumers but only at low to intermediate levels of dispersal. High dispersal rates can reverse these predictions and lead to destabilization. We tested this under controlled conditions using an experimental aquatic system composed of three competing species of zooplankton. Metacommunities experienced different levels of dispersal and environmental forcing in the form of spatially synchronous or asynchronous pH perturbations. We found support that dispersal can have contrasting effects on population stability depending on the degree to which population dynamics were synchronized in space. Dispersal under synchronous forcing or no forcing had either neutral of positive effects on spatial population synchrony of all three zooplankton species. In these treatments, dispersal reduced population stability at the local and metapopulation levels for two of three species. In contrast, asynchronously varying environments reduced population synchrony relative to unforced systems, regardless of dispersal level. In these treatments, dispersal enhanced temporal stability and persistence of populations not by reducing population synchrony but by enhancing population minima and spatial averaging of abundances. High dispersal rates under asynchronous forcing reduced the abundance of one species, consistent with increasing regional competition and general metacommunity theory. However, no effects on its stability or persistence were observed. Our work highlights the context-dependent effects of dispersal on population dynamics in varying environments.