Using species distribution and occupancy modeling to guide survey efforts and assess species status

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Journal for Nature Conservation


Habitat loss and fragmentation continue to be major issues affecting the persistence and conservation of species, but identification of critical habitat remains a challenge. Species distribution modeling and occupancy modeling are both approaches that have been used to predict species distributions and can identify critical habitat characteristics associated with species occurrence. Additionally, occupancy sampling can provide measures of detectability, increasing the confidence that a species is truly absent when not detected. While increasingly popular, these methods are infrequently used in synergy, and rarely at fine spatial scales. We provide a case study of using distribution and occupancy modeling in unison to direct survey efforts, provide estimates of species presence/absence, and to identify local and landscape features important for species occurrence. The focal species for our study was Ambystoma jeffersonianum, a threatened salamander in the state of Illinois, U.S.A. We found that fine-scale distribution models accurately discriminated occupied from unoccupied breeding ponds (78–91% accuracy), and surveys could be effectively guided using a well-fit model. We achieved a high detection rate (0.774) through occupancy sampling, and determined that A. jeffersonianum never used ponds inhabited by fish, and the probability of a pond being used for breeding increased as canopy cover increased. When faced with limited resources, combining fine-scale distribution modeling with a robust occupancy sampling design can expedite survey efforts, confidently designate species occupancy status, prioritise habitat for future surveys and/or restoration, and identify critical habitat features. This approach is broadly applicable to other taxa that have specific habitat requirements.



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