Metapopulation ecology is a field that is richer in theory than in empirical results. Many existing empirical studies use an incidence function approach based on spatial patterns and key assumptions about extinction and colonization rates. Here we recast these assumptions as hypotheses to be tested using 18 years of historic detection survey data combined with four years of data from a new monitoring program for the Lower Keys marsh rabbit. We developed a new model to estimate probabilities of local extinction and colonization in the presence of nondetection, while accounting for estimated occupancy levels of neighboring patches. We used model selection to identify important drivers of population turnover and estimate the effective neighborhood size for this system. Several key relationships related to patch size and isolation that are often assumed in metapopulation models were supported: patch size was negatively related to the probability of extinction and positively related to colonization, and estimated occupancy of neighboring patches was positively related to colonization and negatively related to extinction probabilities. This latter relationship suggested the existence of rescue effects. In our study system, we inferred that coastal patches experienced higher probabilities of extinction and colonization than interior patches. Interior patches exhibited higher occupancy probabilities and may serve as refugia, permitting colonization of coastal patches following disturbances such as hurricanes and storm surges. Our modeling approach should be useful for incorporating neighbor occupancy into future metapopulation analyses and in dealing with other historic occupancy surveys that may not include the recommended levels of sampling replication.
Additional publication details
Testing metapopulation concepts: effects of patch characteristics and neighborhood occupancy on the dynamics of an endangered lagomorph