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We investigated the effects of different environmental factors on the distribution and abundance of 6 species of dasyurid marsupials using a multiple-scale analysis. Data collected in the spinifex dunefields of the Simpson Desert, Australia, were analysed at 3 spatial scales spanning more than 5 orders of magnitude: “metasite” (covering an area of 1000–2000 km2), site (2–12 km2) and grid (0.01 km2). Temporal variability was also investigated, using data collected in March, April, and May in 4 consecutive years from 1997 to 2000. Both abiotic and biotic factors influenced the capture rates of different species at different times and spatial scales. At the coarsest spatial scale, Dasycercus cristicauda (mulgara) was consistently limited in its distribution by the intensity of rainfall, probably as an indirect result of increased grazing pressure from pastoral activity and a higher density of feral predators in high rainfall areas. However, at the finest spatial scale, this partly carnivorous species was scarce in areas of dense spinifex, perhaps because such habitats yield lowest returns during foraging, and was more common in areas where small invertebrate prey were abundant. Factors affecting the distribution of the most abundant dasyurid species in the study area, Sminthopsis youngsoni (lesser hairy-footed dunnart), could not be identified at any scale; we conclude that this reflects the opportunistic foraging strategies and flexible habitat requirements of this insectivorous species. Both Ningaui ridei (wongai ningaui) and Sminthopsis hirtipes (hairy-footed dunnart) were less abundant throughout the study region. For N. ridei, a spinifex specialist, predictors of occurrence could be identified only at the finest scale of analysis; at the grid level, a close positive association was detected in 2 of the 4 study years between capture rate and spinifex cover. For S. hirtipes, all 3 levels of spatial analysis revealed a negative association between capture rate and both rainfall and spinifex density. For the rarely-caught S. crassicaudata (fat-tailed dunnart) and Planigale tenuirostris (narrow-nosed planigale), no clear results were obtained at any spatial scale, and we interpret this to indicate that the study region represents sub-optimal habitat for these species.

Given that different factors affected the distribution and abundance of dasyurids at different spatial scales over time, we conclude that a multiple-scale approach to population and community analysis is vital to accurately identify which environmental processes shape population and community dynamics. Understanding the interplay between regional and local processes will be crucial for management of existing species populations and for prediction of their distributions and abundances in future.