Comparison of the effects of artificial and natural barriers on large African carnivores: Implications for interspecific relationships and connectivity
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- Physical barriers contribute to habitat fragmentation, influence species distribution and ranging behaviour, and impact long-term population viability. Barrier permeability varies among species and can potentially impact the competitive balance within animal communities by differentially affecting co-occurring species. The influence of barriers on the spatial distribution of species within whole communities has nonetheless received little attention.
- During a 4-year period, we studied the influence of a fence and rivers, two landscape features that potentially act as barriers on space use and ranging behaviour of lions Panthera leo, spotted hyenas Crocuta crocuta, African wild dogs Lycaon pictus and cheetahs Acinonyx jubatus in Northern Botswana. We compared the tendencies of these species to cross the barriers using data generated from GPS-radio collars fitted to a total of 35 individuals. Barrier permeability was inferred by calculating the number of times animals crossed a barrier vs. the number of times they did not cross. Finally, based on our results, we produced a map of connectivity for the broader landscape system.
- Permeability varied significantly between fence and rivers and among species. The fence represented an obstacle for lions (permeability = 7·2%), while it was considerably more permeable for hyenas (35·6%) and wild dogs and cheetahs (≥50%). In contrast, the rivers and associated floodplains were relatively permeable to lions (14·4%) while they represented a nearly impassable obstacle for the other species (<2%).
- The aversion of lions to cross the fence resulted in a relatively lion-free habitat patch on one side of the fence, which might provide a potential refuge for other species. For instance, the competitively inferior wild dogs used this refuge significantly more intensively than the side of the fence with a high presence of lions.
- We showed that the influence of a barrier on the distribution of animals could potentially result in a broad-scale modification of community structure and ecology within a guild of co-occurring species. As habitat fragmentation increases, understanding the impact of barriers on species distributions is thus essential for the implementation of landscape-scale management strategies, the development and maintenance of corridors and the enhancement of connectivity.