Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation


Drought, dispersal, and community dynamics in arid-land streams Public Deposited

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  • Understanding the mechanisms that regulate local species diversity and community structure is a perennial goal of ecology. Local community structure can be viewed as the result of numerous local and regional processes; these processes act as filters that reduce the regional species pool down to the observed local community. In stream ecosystems, the natural flow regime (including the timing, magnitude, and duration of high and low flow events) is widely recognized as a primary regulator of local diversity and community composition. This is especially true in aridland streams, where low- and zero-flow events can occur frequently and for extended periods of time (months to years). Additionally, wetted habitat patches in arid-land stream networks are often fragmented within and among stream networks. Thus dispersal between isolated aquatic patches may also play a large role in regulating local communities. In my dissertation, I explored the roles that drought, dispersal, and local habitat factors play in structuring arid-land stream communities. I examined the impact of flow permanence and seasonal variation in flow and other abiotic factors on aquatic communities at both fine spatial scales over a long time period (8 years; Chapter 2) and at a broad spatial scale over a shorter time period (1-2 years; Chapter 4). Additionally, I quantified aquatic invertebrate aerial dispersal over moderate spatial scales (≤ 0.5 km) by conducting a colonization experiment using artificial stream pools placed along and inland from two arid-land streams (Chapter 4). Finally, I examined the roles of spatial isolation, microhabitat type, and local abiotic and biotic factors in structuring aquatic communities in freshwater oases scattered across one of the most arid regions of North America, the southern Sonoran Desert (Chapter 5). In Chapter 2, I found that severe drought caused an unprecedented drying event in isolated perennial stream pools, and that several additional drying events occurred over the following four years. This transition to intermittent flow caused the extirpation of several large, long-lived species with low dispersal abilities (including the top predator) and drove the local community into an alternative state. In the colonization experiment described in Chapter 3, I found that several arid-land stream invertebrate taxa disperse widely and frequently. The widespread dispersers identified by this experiment included several of the earliest colonist taxa observed following the severe drought described in Chapter 2. Other taxa, though, only dispersed overland after receiving an environmental cue (rainfall) or preferentially dispersed along stream corridors. In Chapter 4, where I examined invertebrate community structure across a large network of well-connected intermittent and perennial reaches, I found low diversity in intermittent reaches, regardless of their connectivity to diverse upstream perennial reaches. These species-poor, intermittent communities were composed of a unique suite of species with lifehistory adaptations that conferred desiccation resistance, including extended egg and larval diapause stages. The short flow duration of intermittent reaches (<100 days) likely precluded upstream perennial taxa from establishing populations in downstream intermittent reaches before drying occurred, while the relative predictability of flow timing (Dec-Apr) likely allowed for a small number of species to develop appropriate life-history traits (e.g., diapause stage, rapid development time) to exploit these temporally-fleeting habitats. In Chapter 5, I found over 220 species of aquatic animals (including ≥ 5 undescribed species) in the 19 desert oases that were sampled across the southern Sonoran Desert. Local community composition in these oases was strongly driven by microhabitat type. Additionally, native aquatic species richness and abundance in these oases were significantly reduced by the introduction of tilapia, an exotic fish species. The threats to arid-land streams presented by increased drought severity, anthropogenic water withdrawals, and local habitat degradation (e.g., introduced species, unmanaged recreational use) are grave across the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico. I hope that in addition to furthering our understanding of ecological processes in arid-land streams, this dissertation makes a small contribution towards the efforts to preserve these habitats.
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