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Predicting species abundance in the face of habitat loss

Habitat loss poses the greatest threat to the survival of a species, and often precipitates the demise of top predators and wide-ranging animals, like the Siberian tiger and the orangutan. Any hope of recovering such critically endangered species depends on understanding what drives changes in population size following habitat contraction. In a new study published in PLoS Biology, Nicholas Gotelli and Aaron Ellison test the relative contributions of habitat contraction, keystone species effects, and food-web interactions on species abundance, and provide experimental evidence that trophic interactions exert a dominant effect. Until now, direct evidence that trophic interactions play such an important role has been lacking, in part because manipulating an intact food web has proven experimentally intractable, and in part because these different modeling frameworks have not been explicitly compared.

Gotelli and Ellison overcame such technical limitations by using the carnivorous pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) and its associated food web as a model for studying what regulates abundance in shrinking habitats. Every year, the pitcher plant, found in bogs and swamps throughout southern Canada and the eastern United States, grows six to 12 tubular leaves that collect enough water to support an entire aquatic food web. The pitcher plant food web starts with ants, flies, and other arthropods unlucky enough to fall into its trap. Midges and sarcophagid fly larvae "shred" and chew on the hapless insect. This shredded detritus is further broken down by bacteria, which in turn are consumed by protozoa, rotifers, and mites. Pitcher plant mosquito larvae feed on bacteria, protozoa, and rotifers. Older, larger sarcophagid fly larvae also feed on rotifers as well as on younger, smaller mosquito larvae.

Working with 50 pitcher plants in a bog in Vermont, Gotelli and Ellison subjected the plants to one of five experimental treatments, in which they manipu
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Contact: Natalie Bouaravong
press@plos.org
415-568-3445
Public Library of Science
25-Sep-2006


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