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Synchronous population dynamics in California butterflies explained by climatic forcing
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A long-standing challenge for population biology has been to understand why some species are characterized by populations that fluctuate in size independently, while populations of other species fluctuate synchronously across space. The effects of climatic variation and dispersal have been invoked to explain synchronous population dynamics, however an understanding of the relative influence of these drivers in natural populations is lacking. Here we compare support for dispersal-versus climate-driven models of interspecific variation in synchrony using 27 years of observations of 65 butterfly species at 10 sites spanning 2750m of elevation in Northern California. The degree of spatial synchrony exhibited by each butterfly species was used as a response in a unique approach that allowed us to investigate whether interspecific variation in response to climate or dispersal propensity was most predictive of interspecific variation in synchrony. We report that variation in sensitivity to climate explained 50% of interspecific variation in synchrony, whereas variation in dispersal propensity explained 23%. Sensitivity to the El Nino Southern Oscillation, a primary driver of regional climate, was the best predictor of synchrony. Combining sensitivity to climate and dispersal propensity into a single model did not greatly increase model performance, confirming the primacy of climatic sensitivity for driving spatial synchrony in butterflies. Finally, we uncovered a relationship between spatial synchrony and population decline that is consistent with theory, but small in magnitude, which suggests that the degree to which populations fluctuate in synchrony is of limited use for understanding the ongoing decline of the Northern California butterfly fauna.