A controlled experimental infrastructure for studies of animal dispersal at an unprecedented scale is described in a paper published this week in Nature Methods. This methodology will enable researchers in ecology and conservation biology to conduct experiments that were previously not feasible.
Animals disperse from their habitats for a variety of reasons, including environmental change and habitat fragmentation due to human activity. Studying the factors that affect this process is not easy: existing setups trade off between scale and environmental control. Small laboratory setups allow control of climatic variables, but they do not realistically mimic field conditions and can typically be used for only small organisms. Large-scale field experiments lack environmental control.
Jean Clobert and colleagues fill this gap with the Metatron: an infrastructure of 48 habitat patches on four hectares of land in southern France. Temperature, humidity and light in the individual patches of the Metatron can be experimentally controlled. The patches are connected by flexible corridors presenting varying degrees of difficulty to a dispersing animal. In pilot experiments, the researchers used the Metatron to study lizard and butterfly dispersal. The setup will be useful to study the dispersal of many organisms and to determine how dispersal is affected by changing environmental conditions.