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Ecology. 2009 Jul;90(7):1996-2006.

Population dynamics of two sympatric rodents in a variable environment: rainfall, resource availability, and predation.

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Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois 60115, USA.


Precipitation plays an important role in the dynamics of species found in arid and semiarid environments. However, population fluctuations generally are driven by a combination of multiple factors whose relative contribution may vary through time and among species. We monitored fluctuations of species in three trophic levels for >17 years at a semiarid community in north-central Chile. The region is strongly affected by the El Niño Southern Oscillation, resulting in high variation in rainfall that triggers dramatic changes in food resource availability, with strong effects on upper trophic levels. We focused our analyses on the role played by endogenous and exogenous (climatic) factors on the dynamics of two important rodent species in the community, Octodon degus and Phyllotis darwini. We documented population fluctuations of several orders of magnitude in response to wet and dry episodes of different strength and duration. P. darwini reached similar maximum densities, regardless of the duration of high-rainfall events, whereas O. degus showed additive effects of multiple wet years. Time series diagnostic tools revealed oscillations with a 5-year periodicity in rainfall, which may be the cause of the same periodicity and a weak second-order signal observed in the rodent dynamics. However, the dynamics of both rodent species were dominated by strong first-order processes, suggesting an important role of direct density dependence. Intraspecific competition, expressed as the ratio of rodent density/rainfall (or food resources) explained more than two-thirds of the variation in the population rate of change, whereas less than one-third was explained by lagged rainfall (or food resources). We detected no significant effects of predation. Our results contribute to a growing number of examples of dynamics governed by the combined effect of density dependence and climatic forcing. They also reveal strong bottom-up regulation that may be common in other arid environments.

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