The spatial structuring of populations or communities is an important driver of their functioning and their influence on ecosystems. Identifying the (in)stability of the spatial structure of populations is a first step towards understanding the underlying causes of these structures. Here we studied the relative importance of spatial vs. interannual variability in explaining the patterns of abundance of a large herbivore community (8 species) at waterholes in Hwange National Park (Zimbabwe). We analyzed census data collected over 13 years using multivariate methods. Our results showed that variability in the census data was mostly explained by the spatial structure of the community, as some waterholes had consistently greater herbivore abundance than others. Some temporal variability probably linked to Park-scale migration dependent on annual rainfall was noticeable, however. Once this was accounted for, little temporal variability remained to be explained, suggesting that other factors affecting herbivore abundance over time had a negligible effect at the scale of the study. The extent of spatial and temporal variability in census data was also measured for each species. This study could help in projecting the consequences of surface water management, and more generally presents a methodological framework to simultaneously address the relative importance of spatial vs. temporal effects in driving the distribution of organisms across landscapes.
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