Reconstruction of the Historical Range Alters Niche Estimates in an Endangered Rodent

20 June 2019

Rutrough, Abigail; Widick, Ivy; Bean, William

Defining historical baselines is critical for species conservation. Under the niche reduction hypothesis, species in decline may be restricted disproportionately from parts of their environmental niche. This bias likely has important implications for modeling species’ distributions if only contemporary occurrences (i.e., post-range reduction) are used, because suitable habitat will be classified as unsuitable. Unfortunately, robust historical occurrence data is rarely available for sensitive species. In this study, we documented historical locations of the endangered, keystone giant kangaroo rat (Dipodomys ingens) by examining aerial imagery for burrow mounds. These burrow mounds are readily identifiable and distinguishable from other soil disturbances. We found giant kangaroo rat burrows well outside the currently accepted estimate of their historical distribution. Following the niche reduction hypothesis, we found that giant kangaroo rats have been extirpated from the flattest, hottest, driest parts of their range due to agricultural conversion. This reduction in their realized niche led to significant changes between historical and contemporary models of their distribution. We found that giant kangaroo rats may have occupied up to 56% more habitat historically than currently believed. Our results provide new guidance for managers working on restoration and habitat protection for this ecosystem engineer. This study highlights the critical importance of modeling historical distributions using the entire environmental niche once occupied by species of conservation need.

Doi
10.1111/ecog.04238