Amphibian conservation in human shaped environments: landscape dynamics, habitat modeling and metapopulation analyses

Global biodiversity is experiencing a worrying decline. Habitats destruction, associated to their degradation and fragmentation are among the greatest causes. Amphibians are particularly interesting because they are more threatened and decline more rapidly than either birds or mammals. In this context, the objective of our research is to improve some methodological approaches and offer practical scientific bases for decision making in landscape management and amphibian conservation. Our study focuses on fragmented Swiss landscapes. We developed a method that uses land-cover data and expert knowledge to enable a spatially explicit assessment of 1) the temporal changes in the nature conservation value of the landscape and 2) the rehabilitation potential of the landscape. We applied this Geographical Information Systems (GIS) based approach in the Swiss Rhone plain and we used the years 1900 as the reference state. The method constitutes a helpful tool for communication, decision-making and biological conservation management in landscape planning. Effective and optimal species management strategies can only be formulated after relationships between species distribution and environmental factors have been identified. Concerning amphibians, several approaches exist but they generally suffer from two limitations: 1) the spatial autocorrelation (i.e. the dependency between two observations) in data is rarely explicitly analyzed, even if it may affect the accuracy of species-habitat relationships models. We showed how this spatial autocorrelation can be measured and included in logistic models with the example of the agile frog (Rana dalmatina) in north-eastern Switzerland. We used the Moran's I and the autologistic model (i.e. a logistic model including a measure of the spatial arrangement of the response variables). We found that if spatial autocorrelation is not considered, then conclusions on species-habitat relationships can be incorrect. 2) The effect of landscape on amphibian occurrence in ponds is often assumed to be equal in every direction (isotropic). However, barriers and inhospitable surfaces may reduce movement patterns and the area around ponds accessible to species. This implies that the ideal circular area has in reality a shape depending on the surrounding landscape. We developed a method to determine the effect of habitat variables on amphibian species distribution, considering physical barriers in their movement around ponds. We studied two amphibian species: the common toad (Bufo bufo) and the common frog (Rana temporaria) in the Rhone plain. We demonstrated that reducing the boundaries of circular area following barriers, allowed to compute landscape predictors which better explained species distribution. These results suggested that the proposed approach is more pertinent than the traditional circular buffers analysis. Our results stress the necessity to consider barriers and ecological corridors in species distribution models in order to avoid incorrect inferences. Species distribution models are usually established for a single region. It is generally unknown whether the identified relationships between species distribution and environmental variables can be directly transferred to another geographical area. We examined landscape-level habitat relationships for six amphibian species by measuring correlations with their presence in 655 ponds of five different regions. We analyzed several models by using the information-theoretic approach and the Akaike Information criterion (AIC). For five out of six species, the best models predict that site occupation probability depends on region. Our results suggest that caution is needed when predictions of species occurrence and species management strategies are done using models built in other geographic regions. We also observed that connectivity was generally more explicative than landscape variables. In addition, we found that the spatial scale at which habitat affected species occurrence varied from pond to several km around ponds. Management strategies for amphibian conservation should be conducted taking into account the geographic context, connectivity of ponds and habitat characteristics at multiple spatial scales. Finally, we demonstrated that the landscape, separating patches in metapopulation models, has to be considered in order to avoid incorrect conclusions on population viability analyses. We explored how patch occupancy is sensitive to Euclidean (shortest) versus a landscape-based distance (least-cost). We found: 1) from a theoretical standpoint, that inter-patch landscape affects patch occupancy; 2) from a practical and conservation standpoints, which patches should be considered in priority for landscape management. The approach was illustrated in the case of two metapopulations of the Yellow-bellied Toad in the Rhone plain. We applied successfully the developed practical approaches to the case of several amphibian species, but they can doubtlessly be extended to any species functioning on a spatially defined patch basis (e.g. pond, nesting place, den …), structured as a metapopulation and affected by landscape structure during movement. By improving and combining spatially explicit approaches, we are more likely to provide wildlife managers with tools for valuable decision making.

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