A simple null model, particularly germane to small and vulnerable organisms such as parasites, is that local conditions set a stage upon which larger-scale dynamics play out. Soil moisture strongly influences survival of entomopathogenic nematodes (EPN), which in turn drive trophic cascades by protecting vegetation from root-feeding herbivores. In this study, we examine the mechanisms responsible for patchy occurrence of an entomopathogenic nematode, Heterorhabditis marelatus, in a California coastal prairie. One hypothesis proposes that biotic factors such as competition and natural enemies could regulate occurrence of EPN populations. We found that fungi and other enemies of EPN, although locally potent, did not explain the patterns of incidence across sites. Abiotic factors also have strong effects on EPN persistence, especially for vulnerable free-living stages. Thus, we tested the hypothesis that patchy occurrence of EPN on a large landscape was driven by differences in soil moisture.
Our research uses long-term data on nematode incidence in combination with a landscape-level experiment to demonstrate the lack of a correlation between soil moisture and long-term persistence. A year-long experiment showed EPN mortality was weakly correlated with soil moisture among our study sites. Thirteen years of data, however, showed that colonization rates were highly correlated with long-term persistence. Sites with highest long-term persistence experienced the highest rates of rhizosphere colonization, extinction, and turnover. As a result, we concluded that metapopulation dynamics override limitations set by local and short-term abiotic conditions to determine long-term persistence in this parasite-driven trophic cascade.