Sticking Together or Drifting Apart? Quantifying the Strength of Migratory Connectivity

Post provided by Emily Cohen

Red Knot migratory connectivity is studied with tracking technologies and color band resighting. © Tim Romano

Red Knot migratory connectivity is studied with tracking technologies and colour band resighting. © Tim Romano

The seasonal long-distance migration of all kinds of animals – from whales to dragonflies to amphibians to birds – is as astonishing a feat as it is mysterious and this is an especially exciting time to study migratory animals. In the past 20 years, rapidly advancing technologies  – from tracking devices, to stable isotopes in tissues, to genomics and analytical techniques for the analysis of ring re-encounter databases – mean that it’s now possible to follow many animals throughout the year and solve many of the mysteries of migration.

What is Migratory Connectivity?

One of the many important things we’re now able to measure is migratory connectivity, the connections of migratory individuals and populations between seasons. There are really two components of migratory connectivity:

  1. Linking the geography of where individuals and populations occur between seasons.
  2. The extent, or strength, of co-occurrence of individuals and populations between seasons.

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Midwater Ocean Communities: Sounds Like Siphonophore Soup

Post provided by Roland Proud

How do we know how many fish there are in the ocean? 1000, 1 billion, 1000 billion? We can’t catch them all and count – that’s not practical. Nor can we make observations from Earth-orbiting satellites – light does not penetrate far into the ocean. What we can use is sound.

Sound travels well in water (faster and further than it does in air), so we can use scientific SONAR (echosounders) to produce sound waves and record backscatter from organisms and communities. This provides information concerning their biomass, distribution and behaviour. A recent study used echoes from the mesopelagic zone (200 – 1,000m) to predict global mesopelagic fish biomass to be between 11 and 15 billion tonnes (that’s a lot), suggesting that mesopelagic fish communities could potentially provide global food security.

Mesopelagic Biogeography

In a recent paper, we (the Pelagic Ecology Research Group, PERG at the University of St Andrews) divided the global ocean up into regions based on the properties of echoes from the mesopelagic zone (see below).

10 mesopelagic classes are shown for the open-ocean, echo intensity (a proxy for biomass) increases from blue to red. Coastal zones excluded. Longhurst provinces overlaid. Shapefile here. Proud et al. (2017)

10 mesopelagic classes are shown for the open-ocean, echo intensity (a proxy for biomass) increases from blue to red. Coastal zones excluded. Longhurst provinces overlaid. Shapefile here. Proud et al. (2017)

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Imperfect Pathogen Detection: What to Do When Sampling and Diagnostic Tests Produce Inaccurate Results

Post Provided by Graziella DiRenzo

A salamander having its skin swabbed to test for Bsal infection.

A salamander having its skin swabbed to test for Bsal infection.

Imagine you’re at the doctor’s office. You’re waiting to hear back on a critical test result. With recent emerging infectious diseases in human populations, you are worried you may be infected after a sampling trip to a remote field site. The doctor walks in. You sit nervously, sensing a slight tremble in your left leg. The doctor confidently declares, “Well, your tests results came back negative.” In that moment, you let out a sigh of relief, the kind you feel throughout your body. Then, thoughts start flooding your mind. You wonder– what are the rates of false negatives associated with the test? How sensitive is the diagnostic test to low levels of infection? The doctor didn’t sample all of your blood, so how can they be sure I’m not infected? Is the doctor’s conclusion right?

 Now, let’s say I’m the doctor and my patient is an amphibian. I don’t have an office where the amphibian can come in and listen to me explain the diagnosis or the progression of disease − BUT I do regularly test amphibians in the wild for a fatal fungal pathogen, known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (commonly known as Bd). Diseases like Bd are among the leading causes of the approximately one-third of amphibian species that are threatened, near threatened, or vulnerable to extinction. To test for Bd, and the recently emerged sister taxon Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (hereafter referred to as: Bsal), disease ecologists rely on non-invasive skin swabs. Continue reading

Monitoring the Distribution and Abundance of Sea Otters

Post provided by Perry Williams

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are an apex predator of the nearshore marine ecosystem – the narrow band between terrestrial and oceanic habitat. During the commercial maritime fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, sea otters were nearly hunted to extinction across their range in the North Pacific Ocean. By 1911, only a handful of small isolated populations remained.

Sea otters resting in Glacier Bay National Park. © Jamie Womble, NPS. USFWS Permit #14762C-0, NPS Permit #GLBA-2016- SCI-0022.

Sea otters resting in Glacier Bay National Park. © Jamie Womble, NPS. USFWS Permit #14762C-0, NPS Permit #GLBA-2016- SCI-0022.

But sea otter populations have recovered in many areas due to a few changes. The International Fur Seal Treaty in 1911 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) protected sea otters from most human harvest. Wildlife agencies helped sea otter colonisation by transferring them to unoccupied areas. Eventually, sea otters began to increase in abundance and distribution, and they made their way to Glacier Bay, a tidewater glacier fjord and National Park in southeastern Alaska. Continue reading

Multi-State Species Distribution Models: What to do When Species Need Multiple Habitats

Post provided by Jan Engler, Veronica Frans and Amélie Augé

The north, south, east, and west boundaries of a species’ range tell us very little about what is happening inside…

― Robert H. MacArthur (1972, p. 149)

When You Enter the Matrix, Things Become Difficult!

New Zealand sea lion mother and pup. © Amélie Augé

New Zealand sea lion mother and pup. © Amélie Augé

Protecting wildlife calls for a profound understanding of species’ habitat demands to guide concrete conservation actions. Quantifying the relationships between species and their environment using species distribution models (SDMs) has attracted tremendous attention over the past two decades. Usually these species-environment relationships are estimated on coarse spatial scales, using globally-interpolated long-term climate data sets. While they’re useful for studies on large-scale species distributions, these environmental predictors have limited applications for conservation management.

Climatic data were the first environmental information available with global coverage, but a wide range of Earth observation techniques have increased the availability of much finer environmental information. This allows us to quantify species-environment relationships in unprecedented detail. We can now shift the scale that SDMs operate at, resulting in more useful applications in conservation – SDMs now enter the matrix.

This shift in scale brings new challenges, especially for species using multiple distinct habitat types to survive. The landscape matrix, which has been negligible at the broad (global) scale, is hugely important at the fine (local) scale. It is not only that we need to quantify certain habitat types but also need to consider their arrangement in the landscape, which is basically what the landscape matrix is about. But as we enter the matrix, things become difficult. Continue reading

Protecting Habitat Connectivity for Endangered Vultures: Identifying Priorities with Network Analysis

Post provided by Juliana Pereira, Santiago Saura and Ferenc Jordán

The endangered Egyptian vulture. ©Carlos Delgado

The endangered Egyptian vulture. ©Carlos Delgado

One of the main causes behind biodiversity loss is the reduction and fragmentation of natural habitats. The conversion of natural areas into agricultural, urban or other human-modified landscapes often leaves wild species confined to small and isolated areas of habitat, which can only support small local populations. The problem with small, isolated populations is that they are highly vulnerable to extinction caused by chance events (such as an epidemic or a natural disaster in the area), or by genetic erosion (dramatic loss of genetic diversity that weakens species and takes away their ability to adapt to new conditions).

On top of that, we now have the added concern of climate change, which is altering environmental conditions and shifting habitats to different latitudes and altitudes. To survive in the face of these changes, many species need to modify their geographical distribution and reach new areas with suitable conditions. The combination of mobility (a biological property of species) and the possibility of spatial movement (a physical property of the landscape) is critically important for this. Continue reading

Mark-Recapture and Metapopulation Structure: Using Study Design to Minimize Heterogeneity

Post provided by Delphine Chabanne

Pod of bottlenose dolphins observed in Cockburn Sound, Perth, Western Australia.

Pod of bottlenose dolphins observed in Cockburn Sound, Perth, Western Australia.

Wildlife isn’t usually uniformly or randomly distributed across land- or sea-scapes. It’s typically distributed across a series of subpopulations (or communities). The subpopulations combined constitute a metapopulation. Identifying the size, demography and connectivity between the subpopulations gives us information that is vital to local-species conservation efforts.

What is a Metapopulation?

Richard Levins developed the concept of a metapopulation to describe “a population of populations”. More specifically, the term metapopulation has been used to describe a spatially structured population that persists over time as a set of local populations (or subpopulations; or communities).  Emigration and immigration between subpopulations can happen permanently (through additions or subtractions) or temporarily (through the short-term presence or absence of individuals).

How individuals could distribute themselves within an area.

How individuals could distribute themselves within an area.

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Reptile DNA Sexing: Easier Than You Ever Thought

Post provided by Lukáš Kratochvíl and Michail Rovatsos

The sand lizard (Lacerta agilis).

The sand lizard (Lacerta agilis).

Many researchers, breeders and hobbyists need to know sex of their animals. Sometimes it’s easy – in sexually dimorphic species you only have to look. In other species or juveniles it’s often not so straightforward though. And it’s often impossible – but sometimes essential – in embryos or in tissue samples. Determining sex from DNA is the most practical option, or sometimes even the only possibility, in these cases.

Molecular sexing is routinely used in mammals and birds, but until now it has only been available for a handful of reptile species. Many people didn’t believe that this situation would improve considerably any time soon. But why? Continue reading

Birds and Climate in Space and Time: Separating Spatial and Temporal Effects of Climate Change on Wildlife

Post provided by Cornelia Oedekoven

The Standard Method

When trying to understand how wildlife, for example a bird species, may react to climate change scientists generally study how species numbers vary in relation to climatic or weather variables (e.g. Renwick et al. 2012, Johnston et al. 2013). The way this tends to be done is by gathering information (data!) about bird numbers as well as the weather variables (for example temperature) in several locations (i.e. in space) and fitting a regression model to these data to detect and illustrate how bird numbers go up or down with temperature.

Data on bird numbers and temperatures in several locations lets researchers see the relationship between the two.

Data on bird numbers and temperatures in several locations lets researchers see the relationship between the two.

This relationship is then used to forecast how bird numbers may change along with potential temperature changes in the future (i.e. in time), for example due to climate change.

Relationships between bird numbers and temperature in a given location are often used to forecast changes in bird numbers with expected changes in temperatures over time.

Relationships between bird numbers and temperature in a given location are often used to forecast changes in bird numbers with expected changes in temperatures over time.

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Oxford Research Sheds Light on the Secret Life of Badgers

Below is a press release about the Methods paper ‘An active-radio-frequency-identification system capable of identifying co-locations and social-structure: Validation with a wild free-ranging animal‘ taken from the University of Oxford.

© Peter Trimming

Detecting the movements and interactions of elusive, nocturnal wildlife is a perpetual challenge for wildlife biologists. But, with security tracking technology, more commonly used to protect museum artwork, new Oxford University research has revealed fresh insights into the social behaviour of badgers, with implications for disease transmission.

Previous studies have assumed that badgers are territorial and, at times, anti-social, living in tight-knit and exclusive family groups in dens termed ‘setts’. This led to the perception that badgers actively defend territorial borders and consequently rarely travel beyond their social-group boundaries.

This picture of the badger social system is so widely accepted that some badger culling and vaccination programmes rely on it – considering badger society as being divided up into discrete units, with badgers rarely venturing beyond their exclusive social-groups. But, the findings, newly published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, have revealed that badgers travel more frequently beyond these notional boundaries than first thought, and appear to at least tolerate their neighbours. Continue reading