Patch occupancy of north american mammals: Is patchiness in the eye of the beholder?

Robert K. Swihart, Todd C. Atwood, Jacob R. Goheen, Daniel M. Scheiman, Karen E. Munroe, Thomas M. Gehring

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Aim: Intraspecific variation in patch occupancy often is related to physical features of a landscape, such as the amount and distribution of habitat. However, communities occupying patchy environments typically exhibit non-random distributions in which local assemblages of species-poor patches are nested subsets of assemblages occupying more species-rich patches. Nestedness of local communities implies interspecific differences in sensitivity to patchiness. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain interspecific variation in responses to patchiness within a community, including differences in (1) colonization ability, (2) extinction proneness, (3) tolerance to disturbance, (4) sociality and (5) level of adaptation to prevailing environmental conditions. We used data on North American mammals to compare the performance of these 'ecological' hypotheses and the 'physical landscape' hypothesis. We then compared the best of these models against models that scaled landscape structure to ecologically relevant attributes of individual species. Location: North America. Methods: We analysed data on prevalence (i.e. proportion of patches occupied in a network of patches) and occupancy for 137 species of non-volant mammals and twenty networks consisting of four to seventy-five patches. Insular and terrestrial networks exhibited significantly different mean levels of prevalence and occupancy and thus were analysed separately. Indicator variables at ordinal and family levels were included in models to correct for effects caused by phylogeny. Akaike's information criterion was used in conjunction with ordinary least squares and logistic regression to compare hypotheses. Results: A patch network's physical structure, indexed using patch area and isolation, received the greatest support among models predicting the prevalence of species on insular networks. Niche breadth (diet and habitat) received the greatest support for predicting prevalence of species occupying terrestrial networks. For both insular and terrestrial systems, physical features (patch area and isolation) received greater support than any of the ecological hypotheses for predicting species occupancy of individual patches. For terrestrial systems, scaling patch area by its suitability to a focal species and by individual area requirements of the species, and scaling patch isolation by species-specific dispersal ability and niche breadth, resulted in models of patch occupancy that were superior to models relying solely on physical landscape features. For all selected models, unexplained levels of variation were high. Main conclusions: Stochasticity dominated the systems we studied, indicating that random events are probably quite important in shaping local communities. With respect to deterministic factors, our results suggest that forces affecting species prevalence and occupancy may differ between insular and terrestrial systems. Physical features of insular systems appeared to swamp ecological differences among species in determining prevalence and occupancy, whereas species with broad niches were disproportionately represented in terrestrial networks. We hypothesize that differential extinction over long time periods in highly variable networks has driven nestedness of mammalian communities on islands, whereas differential colonization over shorter time-scales in more homogeneous networks probably governed the local structure of terrestrial communities. Our results also demonstrate that integration of a species' ecological traits with physical features of a patch network is superior to reliance on either factor separately when attempting to predict the species' probability of patch occupancy in terrestrial systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1259-1279
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Biogeography
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2003


  • Colonization
  • Ecological scaling
  • Extinction
  • Habitat fragmentation
  • Islands
  • Mountain-tops
  • Nested subsets
  • Niche breadth
  • Stochastlcity
  • Woodlots


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