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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Simulated effects of habitat loss and fragmentation on a solitary mustelid predator

Brine spills associated with petroleum extraction can reduce the amount of suitable habitat and increase habitat fragmentation for many terrestrial animals. We conducted a simulation study to quantify the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation on a solitary mammal predator. To provide focus, we adopted biological attributes of the American badger (Taxidea taxus) and environmental attributes of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma. We simulated badger activities on landscapes with different degrees of habitat loss and fragmentation using a spatially explicit and individual-based population model. Both habitat loss and fragmentation increased the incidence of habitat-related mortality and decreased the proportion of eligible females that mated, which decreased final population sizes and the likelihood of persistence. Parameter exploration suggested that steep, threshold-like, responses to habitat loss occurred when animals included high-risk habitat in their territories.

Badger populations showed a steeper decline with increasing habitat loss on landscapes fragmented by spills than on less fragmented landscapes. Habitat fragmentation made it difficult for badgers to form high-quality territories, and exposed individuals to higher risk while seeking to establish a territory. Our simulations also suggest that an inability to find mates (an Allee effect) becomes increasingly important for landscapes that support a sparse distribution of territories. Thus, the presence of unmated females with territories may foreshadow population decline in solitary species that do not normally tolerate marginal adults.

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