How patch size and refuge availability change interaction strength and population dynamics: a combined individual- and population-based modeling experiment
Knowledge on how functional responses (a measurement of feeding interaction strength) are affected by patch size and habitat complexity (represented by refuge availability) is crucial for understanding food-web stability and subsequently biodiversity. Due to their laborious character, it is almost impossible to carry out systematic empirical experiments on functional responses across wide gradients of patch sizes and refuge availabilities. Here we overcame this issue by using an
... an individual-based model (IBM) to simulate feeding experiments. The model is based on empirically measured traits such as body size dependent speed and capture success. We simulated these experiments in patches ranging from size of petri dishes to natural patches in the field. Moreover, we varied the refuge availability within the patch independently of patch size, allowing for an independent analyses of both variables. The maximum feeding rate (the maximum number of prey a predator can consume in a given time frame) is independent of patch size and refuge availability, as it is the physiological upper limit of feeding rates. Moreover, the results of these simulations revealed that a type III functional response, which is known to have a stabilizing effect on population dynamics, fits the data best. The half saturation density (the prey density where a predator consumes half of its maximum feeding rate) increased with refuge availability but was only marginally influenced by patch size. Subsequently, we investigated how patch size and refuge availability influence stability and coexistence of predator-prey systems. Following common practice, we used an allometric scaled Rosenzweig-MacArthur predator-prey model based on results from our in silico IBM experiments. The results suggested that densities of both populations are nearly constant across the range of patch sizes simulated, resulting from the constant interaction strength across the patch sizes. However, constant densities with decreasing patch sizes mean a decrease of absolute number of individuals, consequently leading to extinction of predators in smallest patches. Moreover, increasing refuge availabilities also allowed predator and prey to coexist by decreased interaction strengths. Our results underline the need for protecting large patches with high habitat complexity to sustain biodiversity.