Intermediate Disturbance, Historical Contingency, and Patterns of Species Richness

The intermediate disturbance hypothesis (IDH) predicts highest species diversity in environments experiencing intermediate intensity disturbance, after an intermediate timespan. Because many landscapes comprise mosaics with complex disturbance histories, the theory implies that each patch in those mosaics should have a distinct level of diversity reflecting the magnitude of disturbance and the time since it occurred. We model changing patterns of species richness across a landscape experiencing varied scenarios of simulated disturbance in order to predict first the variation of richness through time in individual patches, based on their disturbance histories, and then the changing patterns of richness across the landscape through time, representing the cumulative impact of changing richness within the individual patches. Model outputs show that individual landscape patches have highly variable species richness through time, with the trajectory reflecting the timing, intensity and sequence of disturbances. When the results are mapped across the landscape, the resulting temporal and spatial complexity reveals a distribution of biodiversity that is strikingly contingent on the details of disturbance history. These results illustrate the danger of generalization (in either data interpretation or management decisions), as IDH actually imposes a highly variable pattern of diversity.

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