Cost distance modelling of landscape connectivity and gap-crossing ability using radio-tracking data


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1. Landscape connectivity, the ability of species to move between different elements of a landscape, has been evaluated mainly by expert opinion, proxy data or homing experiments, all of which have major limitations. Cost distance modelling can overcome these limitations, but the resistance values of different landscape elements are difficult to estimate.

2. Here, we present a novel method combining step selection functions with cost distance modelling to assess functional landscape connectivity. Instead of relying on movement metrics, the method uses a case-control design to assess whether the chosen steps differ from a random sample of alternatives of similar lengths. Alternative models of landscape connectivity and dispersal behaviour are represented as maps of resistance values, and compared using an information-theoretic approach to select those hypotheses that maximize the discrepancy between chosen steps and random alternatives.

3. We applied this method to daily locations recorded along the dispersal paths of 38 juvenile North Island robins Petroica longipes in a fragmented pastoral landscape in New Zealand. We compared models with different resistance values for four recognized vegetation types in the landscape and assessed gap-crossing behaviour by changing the resistance value of pasture as a function of distance to the closest woody vegetation.

4. Model comparison showed that juvenile robins move in decreasing order of preference through native forest, plantations and shrubland, and showed a marked reluctance for flying over pasture. Under the best model, the largest gap crossed was 110 m.

5.Synthesis and applications. In combination with data on the total cost distances travelled by dispersers, cost distance models of landscape connectivity can be used to predict distributions of dispersal distances in any landscape with similar vegetation types. They can therefore predict responses of species to landscape management or predict spatial dynamics of populations following reintroduction. Our method is potentially applicable to any dispersal data, even with a relatively small number of locations recorded in complex landscapes, meaning models can be fitted to data that cannot be analysed using previous method. Tools are freely available for download to allow researchers and wildlife managers to apply our methods to their own data.