Allee Effect Limits Colonization Success of Sexually Reproducing Zooplankton

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Understanding the dynamics of populations at low density and the role of Allee effects is a priority due to concern about the decline of rare species and interest in colonization/invasion dynamics. Despite well-developed theory and observational support, experimental examinations of the Allee effect in natural systems are rare, partly because of logistical difficulties associated with experiments at low population density. We took advantage of fish introduction and removal in alpine lakes to experimentally test for the Allee effect at the whole-ecosystem scale. The large copepod Hesperodiaptomus shoshone is often extirpated from the water column by fish and sometimes fails to recover following fish disappearance, despite the presence of a long-lived egg bank. Population growth rate of this dioecious species may be limited by mate encounter rate, such that below some critical density a colonizing population will fail to establish. We conducted a multi-lake experiment in which H. shoshone was stocked at densities that bracketed our hypothesized critical density of 0.5–5 copoepods/m3. Successful recovery by the copepod was observed only in the lake with the highest initial density (3 copepods/m3). Copepods stocked into small cages at 3000 copepods/m3 survived and reproduced at rates comparable to natural populations, confirming that the lakes were suitable habitat for this species. In support of mate limitation as the mechanism underlying recovery failure, we found a significant positive relationship between mating success and density across experimental and natural H. shoshone populations. Furthermore, a mesocosm experiment provided evidence of increased per capita population growth rate with increasing population density in another diaptomid species, Skistodiaptomus pallidus. Together, these lines of evidence support the importance of the Allee effect to population recovery of H. shoshone in the Sierra Nevada, and to diaptomid copepods in general.

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Ecology, v. 89, issue 10, p. 2760-2769