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Ecology. 2011 Mar;92(3):549-55.

Predators, prey, and transient states in the assembly of spatially structured communities.

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Department of Biology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611-8525, USA.


Ecological theory suggests that both dispersal limitation and resource limitation can exert strong effects on community assembly. However, empirical studies of community assembly have focused almost exclusively on communities with a single trophic level. Thus, little is known about the combined effects of dispersal and resource limitation on assembly of communities with multiple trophic levels. We performed a landscape-scale experiment using spatially arranged mesocosms to study effects of dispersal and resource limitation on the assembly dynamics of aquatic invertebrate communities with two trophic levels. We found that interplay between dispersal and resource limitation regulated the assembly of predator and prey trophic levels in these pond communities. Early in assembly, predators and prey were strongly dispersal limited, and resource (i.e., prey) availability did not influence predator colonization. Later in assembly, after predators colonized, resource limitation was the strongest driver of predator abundance, and dispersal limitation played a negligible role. Thus, habitat isolation affected predators directly by reducing predator colonization rate, and indirectly through the effect of distance on prey availability. Dispersal and resource limitation of predators resulted in a transient period in which predators were absent or rare in isolated habitats. This period may be important for understanding population dynamics of vulnerable prey species. Our findings demonstrate that dispersal and resource limitation can jointly regulate assembly dynamics in multi-trophic systems. They also highlight the need to develop a temporal picture of the assembly process in multi-trophic communities because the availability and spatial distribution of limiting resources (i.e., prey) and the distribution of predators can shift radically over time.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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