Population dynamics and dispersal of Lepthyphantes tenuis in an ephemeral habitat

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The population dynamics of Lepthyphantes tenuis (Blackwall) were investigated in two fields of winter wheat in Sussex, England, with the aim of attributing the major factors controlling population fluctuations. Continuous measures of changes in density, reproductive rate and dispersal were obtained using a range of methodologies, including laboratory analysis, suction trapping, rotary sampling of the aerial fauna, caging, and detailed density estimations. The resulting data were then used to determine the major causes of the observed population fluctuations and to describe the processes of dispersal and reproduction in this population.

Population densities were initially very low following ploughing operations, but increased throughout the season as a result of high reproductive rates. Investigation of the reproductive potential of the spiders showed that the number of eggs per egg-sac did not vary with season, and that egg development was temperature related. There was no evidence that the number of viable eggs per egg-sac varied during the season. There were three peaks of hatchling production per year suggesting two to three generations of spiders. Dispersal was not responsible for the major changes in field density throughout the season although dispersal activity was high for this species. Dispersal activity increased with age and was highest in females. Dispersal activity as a ratio of activity/field density for females, males, sub-adults, immatures and hatchlings was 4:2:3:1:1.

Aerial dispersal is only possible under suitable weather conditions. It was found that female dispersal was correlated with weather conditions far more strongly than other population groups. Calculations showed that under suitable weather conditions (e.g., 25% of the time being suitable for dispersal), almost 4% of the adult females could be expected to leave the population daily. The overall effect is therefore to displace individuals from the population but to have little effect on densities. Dispersal in other stages was controlled by the suitability of weather conditions but also by other, undetermined factors. It is postulated that L. tenuis has a life history strategy whereby suitable habitats act as sources of spiders, mainly females, which are continually involved in dispersal. Dispersal in other population groups may be triggered by factors such as the avoidance of adverse conditions. This type of life-history strategy is typical of organisms, such as weeds, that are successful in ephemeral habitats and may indicate that this species originally evolved in unpredictable habitats such as dry river beds or coastal areas.

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