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Ecosystem spatial heterogeneity: formation, consequences, and feedbacks

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An understanding of the formation of spatial heterogeneity is important because spatial heterogeneity leads to functional consequences at the ecosystem scale; however, such an understanding is still limited. Particularly, research simultaneously considering both external variables and internal feedbacks (self-organization) is

An understanding of the formation of spatial heterogeneity is important because spatial heterogeneity leads to functional consequences at the ecosystem scale; however, such an understanding is still limited. Particularly, research simultaneously considering both external variables and internal feedbacks (self-organization) is rare, partly because these two drivers are addressed under different methodological frameworks. In this dissertation, I show the prevalence of internal feedbacks and their interaction with heterogeneity in the preexisting template to form spatial pattern. I use a variety of techniques to account for both the top-down template effect and bottom-up self-organization. Spatial patterns of nutrients in stream surface water are influenced by the self-organized patch configuration originating from the internal feedbacks between nutrient concentration, biological patchiness, and the geomorphic template. Clumps of in-stream macrophyte are shaped by the spatial gradient of water permanence and local self-organization. Additionally, significant biological interactions among plant species also influence macrophyte distribution. The relative contributions of these drivers change in time, responding to the larger external environments or internal processes of ecosystem development. Hydrologic regime alters the effect of geomorphic template and self-organization on in-stream macrophyte distribution. The relative importance of niche vs. neutral processes in shaping biodiversity pattern is a function of hydrology: neutral processes are more important in either very high or very low discharge periods. For the spatial pattern of nutrients, as the ecosystem moves toward late succession and nitrogen becomes more limiting, the effect of self-organization intensifies. Changes in relative importance of different drivers directly affect ecosystem macroscopic properties, such as ecosystem resilience. Stronger internal feedbacks in average to wetter years are shown to increase ecosystem resistance to elevated external stress, and make the backward shifts (vegetation loss) much more gradual. But it causes increases in ecosystem hysteresis effect. Finally, I address the question whether functional consequences of spatial heterogeneity feed back to influence the processes from which spatial heterogeneity emerged through a conceptual review. Such feedbacks are not likely. Self-organized spatial patterning is a result of regular biological processes of organisms. Individual organisms do not benefit from such order. It is order for free, and for nothing.

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2015