Linking irreplaceable landforms in a self-organizing landscape to sensitivity of population vital rates for an ecological specialist.
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Irreplaceable, self-organizing landforms and the endemic and ecologically specialized biodiversity they support are threatened globally by anthropogenic disturbances. Although the outcome of disrupting landforms is somewhat understood, little information exists that documents population consequences of landform disturbance on endemic biodiversity. Conservation strategies for species dependent upon landforms have been difficult to devise because they require understanding complex feedbacks that create and maintain landforms and the consequences of landform configuration on demography of species. We characterized and quantified links between landform configuration and demography of an ecological specialist, the dunes sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus), which occurs only in blowouts (i.e., wind-blown sandy depressions) of Shinnery oak (Quercus havardii) sand-dune landforms. We used matrix models to estimate vital rates from a multisite mark-recapture study of 6 populations occupying landforms with different spatial configurations. Sensitivity and elasticity analyses demonstrated demographic rates among populations varied in sensitivity to different landform configurations. Specifically, significant relationships between blowout shape complexity and vital rate elasticities suggested direct links between S. arenicolus demography and amount of edge in Shinnery oak sand-dune landforms. These landforms are irreplaceable, based on permanent transition of disturbed areas to alternative grassland ecosystem states. Additionally, complex feedbacks between wind, sand, and Shinnery oak maintain this landform, indicating restoration through land management practices is unlikely. Our findings that S. arenicolus population dynamics depended on landform configuration suggest that failure to consider processes of landform organization and their effects on species' population dynamics may lead to incorrect inferences about threats to endemic species and ineffective habitat management for threatened or endangered species. As such, successful conservation of these systems and the biodiversity they support must be informed by research linking process-oriented studies of self-organized landforms with studies of movement, behavior, and demography of species that dwell in them.