1. Drought is a natural disturbance that can cause widespread mortality of aquatic organisms in wetlands. We hypothesized that seasonal drying of marsh surfaces (i.e. hydrological disturbance) shapes spatio-temporal patterns of fish populations. 2. We tested whether population dynamics of fishes were synchronized by hydrological disturbance (Moran effect) or distance separating study sites (dispersal). Spatio-temporal patterns were examined in local populations of five abundant species at 17 sites (sampled five times per year from 1996 to 2001) in a large oligotrophic wetland. 3. Fish densities differed significantly across spatio-temporal scales for all species. For all species except eastern mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki), a significant portion of spatio-temporal variation in density was attributed to drying events (used as a covariate). 4. We observed three patterns of response to hydrological disturbance. Densities of bluefin killifish (Lucania goodei), least killifish (Heterandria formosa), and golden topminnow (Fundulus chrysotus) were usually lowest after a dry down and recovered slowly. Eastern mosquitofish showed no distinct response to marsh drying (i.e. they recovered quickly). Flagfish (Jordanella floridae) density was often highest after a dry down and then declined. Population growth after a dry down was often asymptotic for bluefin killifish and golden topminnow, with greatest asymptotic density and longest time to recovery at sites that dried infrequently. 5. Fish population dynamics were synchronized by hydrological disturbance (independent of distance) and distance separating study sites (independent of hydrological disturbance). Our ability to separate the relative importance of the Moran effect from dispersal was strengthened by a weak association between hydrological synchrony and distance among study sites. Dispersal was the primary mechanism for synchronous population dynamics of flagfish, whereas hydrological disturbance was the primary mechanism for synchronous population dynamics of the other species examined. 6. Species varied in the relative role of the Moran effect and dispersal in homogenizing their population dynamics, probably as a function of life history and ability to exploit dry-season refugia.
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