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Spatiotemporal food web dynamics along a desert riparian–upland transition

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Increased awareness of spatiotemporal variation in species interactions has motivated the study of temporally-resolved food web dynamics at the landscape level. Empiricists have focused attention on cross-habitat flows of materials, nutrients, and prey, largely ignoring the movement of predators between habitats that differ in productivity (and how predators integrate pulses in resource availability over time). We set out to study seasonal variation in food web interactions between mammalian carnivores and their rodent prey along a riparian–upland gradient in semi-arid southeastern Arizona which features both spatial and temporal heterogeneity in resource availability. Specifically, we tested whether mammalian carnivores spill over from productive, near-river habitats into adjacent, desert-scrub habitats; and if they do, to document the effects of this spillover on rodent communities. Furthermore, we examined seasonal variation in top-down effects by measuring changes in carnivore diet and distribution patterns and rodent populations over time. The results indicate that carnivores track seasonally-abundant resources across the landscape, varying both their diet and movement patterns. In turn, desert-scrub rodent population dynamics track seasonal shifts in carnivore habitat use but not resource availability, suggesting that predation plays a role in structuring rodent communities along the San Pedro River. Further evidence comes from data on rodent community composition, which differs between desert-scrub habitats near and far from the river, despite similarities in resource availability. Our data also suggest that seasonal omnivory helps predators survive lean times, increasing their effects on prey populations. Taken together, these results underscore the importance of spatiotemporal variation in species interactions, highlighting the complexity of natural systems and the need for further detailed studies of food web dynamics.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2009

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