Patchy Habitat Drives Population Dynamics

Adding or restoring habitat can alter the production of habitat-dependent organisms in two contrasting ways: (1) by enhancing input of new colonists to the new sites (the Field-of-Dreams Hypothesis); and (2) by drawing colonists away from existing sites (the Propagule Redirection Hypothesis), and thus reducing the deleterious effects of density. We conducted a field experiment on coral reef fishes in Moorea, French Polynesia, to quantify how differing levels of habitat availability (controlling for quality) increased and/or redirected colonizing larval fish. Focal reefs without neighboring reefs received two to four times more settlers than reefs with adjacent habitat, demonstrating that increased habitat redirected larval fish. At the scale of the entire reef array, total colonization increased 1.3-fold in response to a sixfold increase in reef area (and a 2.75-fold increase in adjusted habitat availability). Thus, propagules were both increased and redirected, a result midway between the Field-of-Dreams and Propagule Redirection Hypotheses. A recruitment model using our data and field estimates of density-dependent recruitment predicts that habitat addition increases recruitment primarily by ameliorating the negative effects of competition at existing sites rather than increasing colonization at the new sites per se. Understanding long-term implications of these effects depends upon the interplay among habitat dynamics, population connectivity, colonization dynamics, and density dependence.

This paper is authored by Craig Osenberg (University of Florida) and Adrian Stier (me, University of Florida) and appears in the October issue of Ecology, 2010. 

Adrian Stier