Fine-scale refuges can buffer demographic and genetic processes against short-term climatic variation and disturbance: A 22-year case study of an arboreal marsupial

Sam C. Banks, Thibault Lorin, Robyn E. Shaw, Lachlan McBurney, David Blair, Michaela D.J. Blyton, Annabel L. Smith, Jennifer C. Pierson, David B. Lindenmayer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Ecological disturbance and climate are key drivers of temporal dynamics in the demography and genetic diversity of natural populations. Microscale refuges are known to buffer species' persistence against environmental change, but the effects of such refuges on demographic and genetic patterns in response to short-term environmental variation are poorly understood. We quantified demographic and genetic responses of mountain brushtail possums (Trichosurus cunninghami) to rainfall variability (1992-2013) and to a major wildfire. We hypothesized that there would be underlying differences in demographic and genetic processes between an unburnt mesic refuge and a topographically exposed zone that was burnt in 2009. Fire caused a 2-year decrease in survival in the burnt zone, but the population grew after the fire due to immigration, leading to increased expected heterozygosity. We documented a fire-related behavioural shift, where the rate of movement by individuals in the unburnt refuge to the burnt zone decreased after fire. Irrespective of the fire, there were long-term differences in demographic and genetic parameters between the mesic/unburnt refuge and the nonmesic/burnt zone. Survival was high and unaffected by rainfall in the refuge, but lower and rainfall-dependent in the nonmesic zone. Net movement of individuals was directional, from the mesic refuge to the nonmesic zone, suggesting fine-scale source-sink dynamics. There were higher expected heterozygosity (HE) and temporal genetic stability in the refuge, but lower HE and marked temporal genetic structure in the exposed habitat, consistent with reduced generational overlap caused by elevated mortality and immigration. Thus, fine-scale refuges can mediate the short-term demographic and genetic effects of climate and ecological disturbance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3831-3845
Number of pages15
JournalMolecular Ecology
Issue number15
Early online date19 Jun 2015
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2015
Externally publishedYes


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