How complex do models need to be to predict dispersal of threatened species through matrix habitats?


  • Corresponding Editor: C. Gratton.


Persistence of species in fragmented landscapes depends on dispersal among suitable breeding sites, and dispersal is often influenced by the “matrix” habitats that lie between breeding sites. However, measuring effects of different matrix habitats on movement and incorporating those differences into spatially explicit models to predict dispersal is costly in terms of time and financial resources. Hence a key question for conservation managers is: Do more costly, complex movement models yield more accurate dispersal predictions? We compared the abilities of a range of movement models, from simple to complex, to predict the dispersal of an endangered butterfly, the Saint Francis' satyr (Neonympha mitchellii francisci). The value of more complex models differed depending on how value was assessed. Although the most complex model, based on detailed movement behaviors, best predicted observed dispersal rates, it was only slightly better than the simplest model, which was based solely on distance between sites. Consequently, a parsimony approach using information criteria favors the simplest model we examined. However, when we applied the models to a larger landscape that included proposed habitat restoration sites, in which the composition of the matrix was different than the matrix surrounding extant breeding sites, the simplest model failed to identify a potentially important dispersal barrier, open habitat that butterflies rarely enter, which may completely isolate some of the proposed restoration sites from other breeding sites. Finally, we found that, although the gain in predicting dispersal with increasing model complexity was small, so was the increase in financial cost. Furthermore, a greater fit continued to accrue with greater financial cost, and more complex models made substantially different predictions than simple models when applied to a novel landscape in which butterflies are to be reintroduced to bolster their populations. This suggests that more complex models might be justifiable on financial grounds. Our results caution against a pure parsimony approach to deciding how complex movement models need to be to accurately predict dispersal through the matrix, especially if the models are to be applied to novel or modified landscapes.