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Extinction Risk in Successional Landscapes Subject to Catastrophic Disturbances

David Boughton, Pacific Northwest Research Station, U.S. Forest Service
Urmila Malvadkar, Princeton University

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Abstract

We explore the thesis that stochasticity in successional-disturbance systems can be an agent of species extinction. The analysis uses a simple model of patch dynamics for seral stages in an idealized landscape; each seral stage is assumed to support a specialist biota. The landscape as a whole is characterized by a mean patch birth rate, mean patch size, and mean lifetime for each patch type. Stochasticity takes three forms: (1) patch stochasticity is randomness in the birth times and sizes of individual patches, (2) landscape stochasticity is variation in the annual means of birth rate and size, and (3) turnover mode is whether a patch is eliminated by disturbance or by successional change. Analytical and numerical analyses of the model suggest that landscape stochasticity is the most important agent. Landscape stochasticity increases the extinction risk to species by increasing the risk that the habitat will fluctuate to zero, by reducing the mean abundance of species, and by increasing the variance in species abundance. The highest risk was found to occur in species that inhabit patches with short lifetimes. The results of this general model suggest an important mechanism by which climate change threatens biodiversity: an increase in the frequency of extreme climate events will probably cause pulses of disturbance during some time periods; these in turn would cause wider fluctuations in annual disturbance rates and thus increase the overall level of landscape stochasticity. However, the model also suggests that humans can manipulate landscape stochasticity to reduce risk. In particular, if managed disturbances were more evenly distributed in time, attrition of the regional biota might be prevented. Other work on the connection between patch dynamics and extinction risk assumes the absence of landscape stochasticity and thus overlooks an important component of risk to biodiversity.

Key words

biodiversity, catastrophe, dispersal, disturbance, extinction, landscape, metapopulation, patch dynamics, patchy population, succession
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087