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Habitat‐specific demography, source‐sink dynamics, and the niche of a common shrub in a heterogeneous and fluctuating environment

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The occurrence of a species in habitats of varying quality connected through migration can only be understood by detailed investigation of itsdemography. In the Chihuahuan Desert, the common shrub Flourensia cernua is found in both productive and unproductive areas. In the former, both growing and senescent populations are regularly found, while in the latter a low density scattered population persists indefinitely. While precipitation (and its annual stochastic variation) is the same in both habitats, their geomorphological differences produce a sharp difference in the availability of the limiting resource, water. This produces different population dynamics in F. cernua, but also radically different plant communities. Counterintuitively, the low‐resource habitat (LR) supports a scattered, slightly increasing or stable population that coexists with its neighbors and acts as exporter of seeds (source population). In contrast, the high‐resource habitat (HR) allows sporadic recruitment of locally dense patches that tend towards extinction (sink population). The latter is accounted for by the increasing dominance of the grass Pleuraphys mutica. The different dynamics and regulatory mechanisms in each habitat allow the species to occupy a wider distribution than it would have in their absence. The higher abundance of F. cernua in the sink habitat, together with its consequences on community composition and dynamics, questions the idea proposed in the literature that a sink population lives outside its fundamental niche. The study provides support to the notion that the ecological niche of a species cannot be completely characterized by its requirements (e.g. as they relate to physiology), but must also include the complex demographic responses to a spatially and temporally variable environment, which may often include substandard conditions. For the niche concept to retain its usefulness, it must incorporate the demographic response of populations to spatially and temporallyvariable resource supply.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: September 1, 2015

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