One of the main threats facing wildlife in the modern world is the breaking up of their habitats. Now, for the first time ever, researchers have been able to create a detailed picture of exactly how habitat fragmentation is impacting over 4,000 species of mammals around the world, allowing conservationists to pinpoint exactly which regions at most at risk.
It has long been an assumption of researchers and conservationists alike that the splitting up of environments and ecosystems is damaging to animal populations. The building of cities, roads, railways, and fences literally carve up the landscape. This means that while the environment as a whole might still be relatively intact and supporting a population of animals, individuals are simply unable to meet up to mate, or herds prevented from migrating.
Now a team of scientists from Colorado State University has measured habitat fragmentation for thousands of different species of mammals on a global scale. And they have confirmed what many had thought, the breaking up of populations is truly disastrous. Not only that, but they have been able to produce a map that highlights the hotspots for fragmentation, hopefully informing environmentalists where more attention and work needs to be carried out.
“For the first time in Earth's history, one species – Homo sapiens, or humans – dominates the globe,” explained Kevin Crooks, who led the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “In contrast to prior eras, we travel and communicate across the entire planet. Unfortunately, the more 'connected' we become, non-human life with which we share this planet becomes increasingly disconnected, at their peril.”
The researchers turned to high-resolution models to assess the level of habitat fragmentation for the world’s land-dwelling mammals, and then looked in detail at the relationship between habitat fragmentation and extinction risk. From this, they were able to create incredibly high-resolution maps that identified the regions of the world with intact high-quality habitat, and those doing less well with hotspots of fragmentation for mammals.
They were able to confirm that mammals with most fragmentation were at the highest risk of extinction, even when factors such as geographical range and body size were taken into account. “Species with higher fragmentation had smaller ranges and a lower proportion of high suitability habitat within their range, and most high-suitability habitat occurred outside of protected areas, further elevating extinction risk,” wrote the authors.
It is hoped that the research will go on to form a strong basis for conservationists and policymakers to set strong and strategic plans to protect those mammals that might be most at risk of extinction due primarily to our actions.