Why are metapopulations so rare?

Emanuel A. Fronhofer, Alexander Kubisch, Frank M. Hilker, Thomas Hovestadt, Hans Joachim Poethke

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64 Citations (SciVal)


Roughly 40 years after its introduction, the metapopulation concept is central to population ecology. The notion that local populations and their dynamics may be coupled by dispersal is without any doubt of great importance for our understanding of population-level processes.

A metapopulation describes a set of subpopulations linked by (rare) dispersal events in a dynamic equilibrium of extinctions and recolonizations. In the large body of literature that has accumulated, the term “metapopulation” is often used in a very broad sense; most of the time it simply implies spatial heterogeneity. A number of reviews have recently addressed this problem and have pointed out that, despite the large and still growing popularity of the metapopulation concept, there are only very few empirical examples that conform with the strict classical metapopulation (CM) definition.

In order to understand this discrepancy between theory and observation, we use an individual-based modeling approach that allows us to pinpoint the environmental conditions and the life-history attributes required for the emergence of a CM structure. We find that CM dynamics are restricted to a specific parameter range at the border between spatially structured but completely occupied and globally extinct populations. Considering general life-history attributes, our simulations suggest that CMs are more likely to occur in arthropod species than in (large) vertebrates.

Since the specific type of spatial population structure determines conservation concepts, our findings have important implications for conservation biology. Our model suggests that most spatially structured populations are panmictic, patchy, or of mainland–island type, which makes efforts spent on increasing connectivity (e.g., corridors) questionable. If one does observe a true CM structure, this means that the focal metapopulation is on the brink of extinction and that drastic conservation measures are needed.

Read More: http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/11-1814.1
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1967-1978
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 3 Aug 2012


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