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Assessing the spatial variability of density dependence in waterfowl populations

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Population models commonly assume that the demographic parameters are spatially invariant, but there is considerable evidence that population growth rate (r) and the strength of density dependence (β) can vary over a species' range. To address this issue we developed a spatially explicit Gompertz population model based on the spatially varying coefficients approach to assess the spatial variation in population drivers. The model was fit to spatially stratified time series population estimates of the mallard Anas platyrhynchos in western North America. We included precipitation during the previous year and spring maximum temperature in the current year as environmental factors in the density dependent population model. Because density dependent models can give biased estimates for time series of abundance data, we fit a naïve model without informative priors and a model where we constrained the mean and variance of r to biologically realistic values that were derived via a comparative demography approach. In the naïve model, r and β were not separately identifiable and their values were overestimated, leading to unrealistic population growth. The naïve model also implied spatial variation in population r and the return time to equilibrium [1-(– β)] across the survey area. In contrast, in the informative model, r and the return time to equilibrium did not vary markedly among populations and were generally equal across populations. The effects of the climatic factors were similar across models. Population growth rates in the Prairie‐pothole region were positively correlated with precipitation, while in Alaska rates were positively correlated with spring temperature. Although it has been argued in the past that adding ecological realism could help avoid the pitfalls associated with density dependent models, our results demonstrate that imposing constraints on the population parameters is still the best course of action.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2016

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