Range area matters, and so does spatial configuration: predicting conservation status in vertebrates

25 February 2019

Lucas, Pablo; Gonzalez-Suarez, Manuela; Revilla, Eloy

The current rapid loss of biodiversity globally calls for improved tools to predict conservation status. Conservation status varies among taxa and is influenced by intrinsic species’ traits and extrinsic factors. Among these predictors, the most consistently recognized and widely available is geographic range area. However, ranges of equal area can have diverse spatial configurations that reflect variation in threatening processes and species’ characteristics (e.g., dispersal ability), and can affect local and regional population dynamics. The aim of this study is to assess if and how the spatial configuration of a species’ range relates to its conservation status. We obtained range maps and two descriptors of conservation status: extinction risk and population trend, from the IUCN for 11,052 species of amphibians, non-marine birds, and terrestrial mammals distributed across the World. We characterized spatial configuration using descriptors of shape and fragmentation (fragment number and size heterogeneity) and used regression analysis to evaluate their role in explaining current extinction risk and population trend. The most important predictor of conservation status was range area, but our analyses also identified shape and fragmentation as valuable predictors. We detected complex relationships, revealed by multiple interaction terms, e.g. more circular shapes were negatively correlated with population trend, and heterogeneity was positively correlated with extinction risk for small range areas but negatively for bigger ranges. Considering descriptors of spatial configuration beyond size improves our understanding of conservation status among vertebrates. The metrics we propose are relatively easy to define (although values can be sensitive to data quality), and unlike other correlates of status, like species’ traits, are readily available for many species (all of those with range maps). We argue that considering spatial configuration predictors is a straightforward way to improve our capacity to predict conservation status and thus, can be useful to promote more effective conservation.