Ecological - Second Order
Models based on functional traits have limited power in predicting how animal populations respond to disturbance because they do not capture the range of demographic and biological factors that drive population dynamics, including variation in trophic interactions. I tested the hypothesis that successional changes in vegetation structure, which affected invertebrate abundance, would influence growth rates and body condition in the early-successional, insectivorous gecko Nephrurus stellatus. I captured geckos at 17 woodland sites spanning a succession gradient from 2 to 48 years post-fire. Body condition and growth rates were analysed as a function of the best-fitting fire-related predictor (invertebrate abundance or time since fire) with different combinations of the co-variates age, sex and location. Body condition in the whole population was positively affected by increasing invertebrate abundance and, in the adult population, this effect was most pronounced for females. There was strong support for a decline in growth rates in weight with time since fire. The results suggest that increased early-successional invertebrate abundance has filtered through to a higher trophic level with physiological benefits for insectivorous geckos. I integrated the new findings about trophic interactions into a general conceptual model of mechanisms underlying post-fire population dynamics based on a long-term research programme. The model highlights how greater food availability during early succession could drive rapid population growth by contributing to previously reported enhanced reproduction and dispersal. This study provides a framework to understand links between ecological and physiological traits underlying post-fire population dynamics.