Habitat amount is less important than habitat configuration for a threatened marsupial predator in naturally fragmented landscapes

Harry A. Moore, Damian R. Michael, Judy A. Dunlop, Leonie E. Valentine, Mitchell A. Cowan, Dale G. Nimmo

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Abstract

Context

The amount and configuration of habitat are independent but tightly linked landscape characteristics which are often confounded in ecological studies. Differentiating the effects of each characteristic is critical for conservation, because the mechanisms by which they influence populations are distinct. While studies that have measured the effects of habitat amount and configuration separately have often found the former to be more important, a subset of these studies suggest habitat configuration can be vital to a species when habitat amount is low (10–30%).

Objectives

We aimed to test the independent effects of habitat amount and configuration on the occupancy and abundance of an endangered marsupial predator, the northern quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus), which persists in naturally fragmented rocky landscapes, in which habitat amount is naturally low (i.e. typically < 30%).

Methods

Northern quolls were surveyed across 22 study landscapes that were deliberately selected such that habitat amount and configuration were uncorrelated. Northern quoll occupancy and abundance was estimated at each landscape using data collected from remote sensing cameras, and a combination of occupancy and n-mixture models.

Results

Spatial configuration of rocky habitats was more important than the amount of habitat when predicting quoll occupancy and abundance; northern quolls were less abundant in landscapes that were more fragmented. In addition, northern quolls favoured areas that were topographically rugged and received more rainfall.

Conclusions

Our results support the hypothesis that the effects of habitat configuration can be strongest when habitat amount is low, and underscore the importance of aggregated patches of rocky outcrops for northern quoll conservation. The subdivision of rocky habitat, for instance through construction of mines or mining infrastructure (e.g. road, rail lines), is likely to have negative impacts on northern quoll populations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)935–949
Number of pages15
JournalLandscape Ecology
Volume37
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 12 Feb 2022

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