Asynchrony, density dependence, and persistence in an amphibian
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Understanding drivers of metapopulation dynamics remains a critical challenge for ecology and conservation. In particular, the degree of synchrony in metapopulation dynamics determines how resilient a metapopulation is to a widespread disturbance. In this study, we used 21 years of egg mass count data across 64 nonpermanent freshwater ponds in Connecticut, USA to evaluate patterns of abundance and growth and to assess regional as well as local factors in shaping the population dynamics of wood frogs (Rana sylvatica = Lithobates sylvaticus). In particular, we asked whether a species known to undergo metapopulation dynamics exhibited spatial synchrony in abundances. With the exception of a single year when breeding took place during severe drought conditions, our analyses revealed no evidence of synchrony despite close proximity (mean minimum distance < 300 m) of breeding ponds across the 3213-ha study area. Instead, local, pond-scale conditions best predicted patterns of abundance and population growth rate. We found negative density dependence on population growth rate within ponds as well as evidence that larger neighboring pond populations had a negative effect on focal ponds. Beyond density, pond depth was a critical predictor; deeper ponds supported larger populations. Drought conditions and warm winters negatively affected populations. Overall, breeding ponds vary in critical ways that either support larger, more persistent populations or smaller populations that are not represented by breeding pairs in some years. The infrequency of spatial synchrony in this system is surprising and suggests greater resilience to stressors than would have been expected if dynamics were strongly synchronized. More generally, understanding the characteristics of systems that determine synchronous population dynamics will be critical to predicting which species are more or less resilient to widespread disturbances like land conversion or climate change.