Date of Award:


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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




James A. MacMahon


Habitat structure is an important driver of many ecological patterns and processes, but few studies investigate whether habitat structure interacts with other environmental variables to affect community dynamics. The main objective of this study was to disentangle the relative importance of prey availability and shrub architecture on the distribution, abundance, and biodiversity of spiders of northern Utah, USA. We conducted field experiments which focused on: (1) describing the importance of these factors on spider community organization, (2) specifically evaluating whether prey availability mediates the relationship between shrub architecture and spider abundance and biodiversity, and (3) investigating spider and prey responses to manipulations of surrounding vegetation structures. For the first two experiments, big sagebrush shrubs were randomly assigned to six experimental treatments: two levels of prey attractant (shrubs were either baited or not baited) and three levels of foliage density (low, natural/control, or high). The purpose of manipulating both prey availability and shrub architecture was to delineate their significance to spiders. For the last experiment, changes in these factors were investigated at two different levels of spatial context (a single manipulated shrub surrounded by untreated shrubs vs. a manipulated shrub surrounded by a patch of similarly treated shrubs). We found both prey availability and shrub architecture directly influenced patterns of spider abundance and species richness and that spider species diversity and community composition varied in response to shrub architecture alone. Preferences of some spiders for certain shrub types likely reflect differences in foraging strategies or the substrate required to support different types of webs. We also demonstrate that spider response to shrub architecture is the result of multiple processes (i.e., a combination of direct and indirect effects via prey availability) and that surrounding vegetation structures affect spider abundances on shrubs. In addition, prey composition varied among different shrub foliage density treatments, but only when surrounding vegetation structures were also manipulated. More generally, this study suggests that ecological responses to habitat structure are in part mediated by associated variables and the significance of shrub architecture varies depending on the organisms examined and the spatial scale to which they respond most strongly.


This work made publicly available electronically on May 10, 2012.

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