Building better landscapes for wildlife

Autumn brings shorter days and colder weather here to the UK, with many of us thinking back on the past summer spent hiking, barbequing, and enjoying the elusive British summer sun. Regardless of the outdoor activities you enjoy the most, you’re probably not the only who looks forward to those long summer days. In addition to your neighbours, friends, and fellow hikers, you’ll also find singing birds, pollinating bees, and burrowing rabbits. But as urban areas continue to increase in size while farms continue to use large areas to grow food for growing populations, wildlife are finding it more difficult to have a place to call home. Thanks to conservation biologist Dr. Jenny Hodgson from our Adaptation to Environmental Change theme, IIB is involved with collaborative research with conservation groups for restoring landscapes and building better habitat networks for wildlife populations.

meJenny recently became a lecturer here at IIB and joined the institute as a tenure-track fellow in late 2012. She is currently working on methods to scientifically prioritise where to create new habitats and where to improve degraded ones. But why is this necessary at all, can’t you just restore a habitat anywhere and it will be better than before? “We need to choose carefully because we don’t just want to boost wildlife within the boundaries of our restoration projects. If we choose smartly, we could see benefits cascading away from our projects and long into the future, because we will affect the populations at many sites which are linked together into a network” Jenny commented while describing the key concept at the centre of her research: the theory of metapopulations.

A metapopulation is a group of several wild populations that are linked together by individuals who occasionally disperse between smaller subgroups. Each population inhabits its own ‘island’ of habitat, and separation can be driven between groups by barriers such as roads, buildings, or geographical distance. A well-connected network of habitats can lead to more stable populations than island populations trying to persist in isolation. Conservation groups want to make sure that existing populations are mutually supportive rather than isolated, and they also want to know how to prepare habitat restoration plans for climate change. Increasing temperatures will likely drive animals from their current habitats and into new areas where there may not be adequate habitats for them to move into.

This is where Jenny’s research comes in: her group is using new modelling approaches that can make habitats better connected using the theory of metapopulations. Jenny is currently involved in a research project with conservation groups including the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the North York Moors National Park on restoration planning. This project involves developing user-friendly software (www.condatis.org.uk) which conservation groups can use to find the most efficient locations. Efficient locations are where a small amount of habitat increase leads to a large improvement in the conductance, or speed of movement, for the predicted amount of time that a species will spread through the landscape.

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The set-up for the Condatis software is simple: you first input a GIS map of known habitats in your area of interest. From there, you select your source, the habitat that the population will start in, and the target, where you want the population to end up. You also define a typical dispersal distance, or how far a species normally moves around, as well as the reproduction rate of the species you are interested in. No additional scientific knowledge is needed to use the software and the results appear as colour-coded maps and bar charts showing conservationists where the best places for new habitats are.

Within the software, Condatis uses mathematical models which incorporate the principles of metapopulation dynamics to determine how habitat patches connect and how subsequent generations of dispersal and reproduction can lead to the species reaching the target. The software can also identify potential bottlenecks, which are gaps in the habitat network that constrain a population’s ability to reach the target. Focusing restoration efforts on these areas can increase the ability and the speed that wildlife can move around. This also enables wildlife to become better able to respond to environmental or climate changes.

Developing the software was no easy task, and Condatis took a full-time software programmer one year to complete. The project has so far been well-received by conservation groups and people working on habitat restoration efforts. When asked if conservationists are hesitant to use a tool founded completely on mathematical models for restoration decision-making efforts, Jenny replied “The groups we work with do want to know what the limitations of the software are, but in general the conservation groups that come to us think the software is useful. The more the model is demonstrated to work with practical applications, the more people will be convinced it’s worth the time to understand it.”

Jenny is now working to bridge these uncertainties by maintaining regular contact with conservation groups and stakeholders as well as by organizing training events on the use and application of the software. The majority of Jenny’s work keeps her at the office, but she still finds occasional opportunities for getting out into the field. Jenny’s students actively collect environmental data, which allows her group to maintain the connections between the real-world context of conservation planning and to test ecological theories against actual data.

Jenny began her career in conservation biology after earning her undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences from the University of Cambridge. From there she worked at the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, an agency of the UN Environment Programme, as a species program assistant. After working at the Monitoring Centre for 9 months, Jenny found that she craved more of an intellectual challenge and found a PhD on a topic which had inspired her as an undergraduate. Her PhD at the University of York focussed on butterfly metapopulations and involved a combination of field work and population modelling.

Before coming to IIB, Jenny found herself doing a patchwork of jobs, which she used as a time to think about her career and to look for potential long-term leads. “I was lucky I could survive being unemployed for short periods, and I used the time to focus on writing papers. It was a productive but stressful time, and in the end I was able to publish the work from my PhD and a variety of collaborative projects and to show that my ideas were useful for the field.” said Jenny.

Jenny greatly enjoys her time as a researcher here at IIB. “The best part of my job is doing the science, seeing the results first-hand, and connecting with others. The people that I collaborate with in conservation groups are always clever, interesting, and dedicated people with great ideas, and I really enjoy working with people who are involved in both science and policy.” said Jenny. Jenny finds scientific research stimulating, interesting, and challenging, and considers these all to be her motivating factors even amidst the uncertainty and stresses of grant writing and time management in an academic research post. In the next few years, Jenny will be following up with other projects related to the use of the Condatis software, including how to improve movement within marginal habitats, which are areas that can only support a population in the short-term.

While there is still a lot of work to be done in the field of conservation biology and bracing the world for climate change, Jenny is optimistic about the impact of her work. “There is a solution to these problems within wildlife conservation and habitat restoration, and you can see parts of it coming together already. People really do want to see wildlife where they live, but we know that their habitats are eroded and that certain species can’t easily cope with change. While we still don’t know the most effective trade-offs between our needs and the needs of wildlife, we are starting to build smarter ways of better integrating wildlife into landscapes that are full of people.” commented Jenny.

If you want to see the Condatis software first-hand, be sure to check out the tutorial made by Jenny and her PhD student here: https://stream.liv.ac.uk/s/cbufzjp8

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