Can conservation corridor toolsets inform strategic planning to improve functional connectivity?

Greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum). Credit: Frank Greenaway.

The impacts from the anthropogenic effects of climate change and habitat fragmentation, which are largely driven by industrialization, urbanization and agricultural change, have implications at both an individual and population level. For example, isolation from habitats that are necessary for foraging, resting or community dynamics can result in population declines and greater vulnerability to extinction.

Improving functional connectivity within the wider landscape has been identified as a critical conservation concern and way to balance these changes. The identification of habitats with high functional connectivity for vulnerable species would allow land managers and conservationists to target resources that provide the highest net gain for biodiversity.

Many connectivity studies focus on large scale movements or migrations of species, i.e. across entire countries using course data resolution. However, local scale changes to the landscape, such as new infrastructure development or the addition of lighting fixtures, could also significantly affect daily dispersal patterns of vulnerable species between their habitat networks. Our new paper uses greater horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum) as a model species to demonstrate that spatially accurate functional connectivity models can be created effectively at a local scale using fine data resolution.

Greater horseshoe bat populations have undergone a dramatic decline over the last decade in North West Europe. This has mainly been attributed to land-use change, which is likely to vary at a local scale. In the face of heightened pressure from the cumulative effects of multiple new developments, it is essential to identify wildlife “pinch-points” in landscapes where such developments are most likely to cause significant negative impacts. These alterations can lead to a loss of landscape permeability, reducing connectivity between both foraging grounds and meta-populations.

Functional connectivity for greater horseshoe bats (GHS), pinch points, and the barrier effects of streetlights. Black triangles are streetlight locations, red indicates high functional connectivity, and blue indicates low functional connectivity. From Finch et al. 2020. Landscape Ecology.

Using both bat activity and radio tracking data, we empirically validate functional connectivity models. We show that the model predictions are better than expert opinion in identifying the locations of strategic conservation corridors, and that they also have the ability to detect pinch-points that are critical to movement and dispersal. The models also highlight how the greater horseshoe bat can be used as an umbrella species to aid the conservation of other bat species that do not have the same legal protection.

Our approach has the potential to facilitate evidence-based policy and management. The resultant models can help planners and conservationists reduce human-wildlife conflicts by applying mitigation measures strategically at locations likely to be most sensitive to species movement and future land-use change. By highlighting landscape features that act as barriers to movement, this approach can be used by decision makers as a tool to inform local management strategies.

Resources

Finch, D., Corbacho, D.P., Schofield, H., Davison, S., Wright, P.G., Broughton, R.K. and Mathews, F. 2020. Modelling the functional connectivity of landscapes for greater horseshoe bats Rhinolophus ferrumequinum at a local scale. Landscape Ecology 35(3): 577-589.

Fahrig, L., Baudry, J., Brotons, L., Burel, F.G., Crist, T.O., Fuller, R.J., Sirami, C., Siriwardena, G.M. and Martin, J.L. 2011. Functional landscape heterogeneity and animal biodiversity in agricultural landscapes. Ecology Letters 14(2): 101-112.

Lawton, J.H., Brotherton, P.N.M., Brown, V.K., Elphick, C., Fitter, A.H., Forshaw, J., Haddow, R., Hilborne, S., Leafe, R., Mace, G. and Southgate, M. 2010. Making space for nature: a review of england’s wildlife sites and ecological network. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, London.

Habitat fragmentation decreases dispersal rates and reduces habitat choice (March 2020)

Review: connectivity modeling for climate change (June 2019)

2020-04-06T10:52:59-04:00 April 13th, 2020|

About the Author:

Domhnall Finch
Domhnall Finch is a PhD student at the University of Sussex. His research focuses on remote sensing, bioacoustics and movement ecology of bats, birds and mammals, examining what acts as barriers to species movement, and identifying practical solutions to maintaining landscape connectivity.