- 1 Habitat alteration and fragmentation are two of the greatest threats to biodiversity. The conservation of most species in highly encroached areas requires reserves that are connected by suitable habitat corridors to increase the effectiveness of the area under protection. However, the quality required for such corridors is still debated. This study investigated the habitat characteristics (vegetation structure and prey abundance) of sites used by resident and dispersing Iberian lynx in south-western Spain.
- 2 Vegetation structure and an index of rabbit abundance (the staple prey of lynx) were measured at sites used by radio-collared lynx in 1996 and 1997. Data from 128 plots used by resident lynx and 310 plots used by dispersing individuals were compared with data from 162 randomly located plots in sites considered to be unused by lynx.
3. Resident sites had a lower percentage of tree cover, shorter tree height, higher percentage of tall shrub cover, higher percentage of overall understorey and higher number of rabbit pellets than both dispersal and unused sites. The height of the short shrub layer was taller and the rabbit abundance index was higher in dispersing sites than in unused sites.
- 4 Gender did not affect habitat selection by lynx. During dispersal, lynx frequently (50% of cases) used vegetation patches narrower than 300 m. In these cases, sites used by lynx had higher understorey cover and taller shrub height than adjacent unused sites. The percentage of short shrub cover used by lynx increased with the length of time taken to disperse; this was the only variable that changed over time.
- 5 Range size of resident individuals declined significantly with the index of rabbit abundance but increased with the percentage of short shrub cover. Both variables were good predictors of range size.
- 6 The study shows that corridors connecting reserves do not have to be prime habitats; they can even support moderate habitat degradation due to human activity. This result has implications both for the conservation of existing corridors, and for the restoration of the many corridors between reserves that have been lost.