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Quantitative linkages between individual organism movements and the resulting population distributions are fundamental to understanding a wide range of ecological processes, including rates of reproduction, consumption, and mortality, as well as the spread of diseases and invasions. Typically, quantitative data are collected on either movement behaviors or population distributions, rarely both. This study combines empirical observations and model simulations to gain a mechanistic understanding and predictive ability of the linkages between both individual movement behaviors and population distributions of a single-celled planktonic herbivore. In the laboratory, microscopic 3D movements and macroscopic population distributions were simultaneously quantified in a 1L tank, using automated video- and image-analysis routines. The vertical velocity component of cell movements was extracted from the empirical data and used to motivate a series of correlated random walk models that predicted population distributions. Validation of the model predictions with empirical data was essential to distinguish amongst a number of theoretically plausible model formulations. All model predictions captured the essence of the population redistribution (mean upward drift) but only models assuming long correlation times (minute), captured the variance in population distribution. Models assuming correlation times of 8 minutes predicted the least deviation from the empirical observations. Autocorrelation analysis of the empirical data failed to identify a de-correlation time in the up to 30-second-long swimming trajectories. These minute-scale estimates are considerably greater than previous estimates of second-scale correlation times. Considerable cell-to-cell variation and behavioral heterogeneity were critical to these results. Strongly correlated random walkers were predicted to have significantly greater dispersal distances and more rapid encounters with remote targets (e.g. resource patches, predators) than weakly correlated random walkers. The tendency to disperse rapidly in the absence of aggregative stimuli has important ramifications for the ecology and biogeography of planktonic organisms that perform this kind of random walk.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.