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Am Nat. 2006 Dec;168(6):784-95. Epub 2006 Oct 12.

Deciphering the effects of climate on animal populations: diagnostic analysis provides new interpretation of Soay sheep dynamics.

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Department of Entomology, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington 99164, USA.


Soay sheep on the island of Hirta exhibit periodic population collapses that have been proposed to result from nonlinear interactions between weather, population density, and age structure. Here we employ a diagnostic approach to reanalyze the data from 1985 to 2004 and find that climate mainly affects the equilibrium population size, thus acting as a lateral perturbation. From this, we derive a simple energetic model for a population interacting with its food supply in the presence of variable winter weather. This model explains the strong nonlinearity in the Soay sheep population regulation function and provides a framework for evaluating climatic perturbations. We examined two integrative climatic indexes, one representing effects on forage production and the other representing the severity of winter weather. Results suggest that the latter has the main effect on Soay sheep population dynamics. Models incorporating this variable provided fairly accurate predictions of Soay sheep population fluctuations. The diagnostic approach offers an objective way to develop simple, nonstructured population models that are useful for understanding the causes of population fluctuations and predicting population changes, provided they are based on a careful consideration of the underlying biological and/or ecological mechanisms.

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