Lower-elevation habitats of north-central Chile are characterized by semiarid vegetation that is strongly influenced by rainfall related to El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events. During the ENSO warm phase (i.e., El Niño), heavy rains occur resulting in small mammal irruptions or ratadas. During prevailing drier periods, pronounced droughts result in reductions in small mammal densities and local extinctions of some species. Within the dominant thorn-scrub habitat of a national park, we identified 2 other habitat types, aguadas (riverine shrublands) and fog-forest patches that serve as refuges for small mammals during dry years. We divide small mammal species of the thorn scrub into 2 groups: core species (Octodon degus, Phyllotis darwini, Abrothrix olivaceus, and Thylamys elegans) maintain populations at all times, whereas opportunistic species (Oligoryzomys longicaudatus and A. longipilis) are present only after rains. The latter group appears to maintain refuge populations in aguadas and fog forests and to opportunistically exploit the thorn scrub when conditions are favorable. Aguadas also may play an important role in the persistence of less-common species, such as Octodon lunatus and Abrocoma bennetti. Despite being small and patchily distributed, aguadas are important for the maintenance of regional biodiversity.
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