Effects of a mobile disturbance pattern on dynamic patch networks and metapopulation persistence

Fabritius, Henna; Knegt, Henjo de; Ovaskainen, Otso


Motivation: Certain early-succession habitats may emerge only at restricted locations following disturbance. Therefore, whether disturbances tend to occur at certain sites or not can significantly affect habitat availability and metapopulation persistence of early-successional habitat specialists. Available models that combine metapopulation and landscape processes do not address how to model mobile, spatially shifting disturbance intensities independent of factors of site suitability. We present a model that allows the study on how a mobile disturbance pattern, of either natural or anthropogenic origin, affects patch network and metapopulation dynamics in realistic, heterogeneous landscapes. Methods: We simulate metapopulation dynamics using a realistic landscape and varying patch destruction (and turnover) rates. We model the local patch emergence rate as the function of site suitability to patch emergence –a permanent factor–and local disturbance intensity, which we first estimate from empirical data and then simulate using annually updating spatial random fields. Using this model, we test whether and how a mobile disturbance pattern affects metapopulation persistence of the false heath fritillary butterfly (Melitaea diamina). Results: In our case study, a mobile disturbance pattern caused new patches to emerge further away from occupied patches over time. This decreased the probability of new patches becoming colonized and thus impaired metapopulation persistence even when the median distance between patches appeared unchanging. However, if disturbances moved to areas that were highly suitable to patch emergence, increased habitat availability could compensate the otherwise detrimental effects of a mobile disturbance pattern. Disturbances that had a moderate degree of mobility had the most uncertain effects to metapopulation persistence. Conclusions: Our modelling approach distinguishes between two processes behind the spatio-temporal pattern and rates of patch emergence–disturbance dynamics and varying site suitability. It enables the use of social and environmental data for forecasting habitat availability for early-succession habitat specialists under alternative future scenarios. It can be applied and developed further to suit multiple study systems. Our case study suggests that for species conservation, it is either beneficial to organize recurring management activities to take place at constant locations, or to gradually shift them towards areas that are highly suitable to patch emergence.