Ecological traps and species distribution models: a challenge for prioritizing areas of conservation importance
29 October 2019Titeux, Nicolas; Aizpurua, Olatz; Hollander, Franck; Sardà-Palomera, Francesc; Hermoso, Virgilio; Paquet, Jean-Yves; Mestdagh, Xavier; Settele, Josef; Brotons, Lluís; Van Dyck, Hans
Species distribution models analyse how species use different types of habitats. Their spatial predictions are often used to prioritize areas for conservation. Individuals may, however, prefer settling in habitat types of low quality compared to other available habitats. This ecological trap phenomenon is usually studied in a small number of habitat patches and consequences at the landscape level are largely unknown. It is therefore often unclear whether the spatial pattern of habitat use is aligned with the behavioural decisions made by the individuals during habitat selection or reflects actual variation in the quality of different habitat types. As species distribution models analyse the pattern of occurrence in different habitats, there is a conservation interest in examining what their predictions mean in terms of habitat quality when ecological traps are operating. Previous work in Belgium showed that Red-backed shrikes (Lanius collurio) are more attracted to newly available clear-cut habitat in plantation forests than to the traditionally used farmland habitat. We developed models with shrike distribution data and compared their predictions with spatial variation in shrike reproductive performance used as a proxy for habitat quality. Models accurately predicted shrike distribution and identified the preferred clear-cut patches as the most frequently used habitat, but reproductive performance was lower in clear-cut areas than in farmland. With human-induced rapid environmental changes, organisms may indeed be attracted to low-quality habitats and occupy them at high densities. Consequently, the predictions of statistical models based on occurrence records may not align with variation in significant population parameters for the maintenance of the species. When species expand their range to novel habitats, such models are useful to document the spatial distribution of the organisms, but data on population growth rates are worth collecting before using model predictions to guide the spatial prioritization of conservation actions.