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Concept: Habitat


Countershading was one of the first proposed mechanisms of camouflage [1, 2]. A dark dorsum and light ventrum counteract the gradient created by illumination from above, obliterating cues to 3D shape [3-6]. Because the optimal countershading varies strongly with light environment [7-9], pigmentation patterns give clues to an animal’s habitat. Indeed, comparative evidence from ungulates [9] shows that interspecific variation in countershading matches predictions: in open habitats, where direct overhead sunshine dominates, a sharp dark-light color transition high up the body is evident; in closed habitats (e.g., under forest canopy), diffuse illumination dominates and a smoother dorsoventral gradation is found. We can apply this approach to extinct animals in which the preservation of fossil melanin allows reconstruction of coloration [10-15]. Here we present a study of an exceptionally well-preserved specimen of Psittacosaurus sp. from the Chinese Jehol biota [16, 17]. This Psittacosaurus was countershaded [16] with a light underbelly and tail, whereas the chest was more pigmented. Other patterns resemble disruptive camouflage, whereas the chin and jugal bosses on the face appear dark. We projected the color patterns onto an anatomically accurate life-size model in order to assess their function experimentally. The patterns are compared to the predicted optimal countershading from the measured radiance patterns generated on an identical uniform gray model in direct versus diffuse illumination. These studies suggest that Psittacosaurus sp. inhabited a closed habitat such as a forest with a relatively dense canopy. VIDEO ABSTRACT.

Concepts: Habitat, Light, Sunlight, Color, Lighting, Pigment, Paleontology, Dinosaur


Determining how widespread human-induced changes such as habitat loss, landscape fragmentation, and climate instability affect populations, communities, and ecosystems is one of the most pressing environmental challenges. Critical to this challenge is understanding how these changes are affecting the movement abilities and dispersal trajectories of organisms and what role conservation planning can play in promoting movement among remaining fragments of suitable habitat. Whereas evidence is mounting for how conservation strategies such as corridors impact animal movement, virtually nothing is known for species dispersed by wind, which are often mistakenly assumed to not be limited by dispersal. Here, we combine mechanistic dispersal models, wind measurements, and seed releases in a large-scale experimental landscape to show that habitat corridors affect wind dynamics and seed dispersal by redirecting and bellowing airflow and by increasing the likelihood of seed uplift. Wind direction interacts with landscape orientation to determine when corridors provide connectivity. Our results predict positive impacts of connectivity and patch shape on species richness of wind-dispersed plants, which we empirically illustrate using 12 y of data from our experimental landscapes. We conclude that habitat fragmentation and corridors strongly impact the movement of wind-dispersed species, which has community-level consequences.

Concepts: Habitat, Plant, Habitats, Extinction, Habitat conservation, Landscape, Habitat fragmentation, Habitat destruction


For decades, ecologists have measured habitat attributes in the field to understand and predict patterns of animal distribution and abundance. However, the scale of inference possible from field measured data is typically limited because large-scale data collection is rarely feasible. This is problematic given that conservation and management typical require data that are fine grained yet broad in extent. Recent advances in remote sensing methodology offer alternative tools for efficiently characterizing wildlife habitat across broad areas. We explored the use of remotely sensed image texture, which is a surrogate for vegetation structure, calculated from both an air photo and from a Landsat TM satellite image, compared with field-measured vegetation structure, characterized by foliage-height diversity and horizontal vegetation structure, to predict avian density and species richness within grassland, savanna, and woodland habitats at Fort McCoy Military Installation, Wisconsin, USA. Image texture calculated from the air photo best predicted density of a grassland associated species, grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), within grassland habitat (R(2)  = 0.52, p-value <0.001), and avian species richness among habitats (R(2)  = 0.54, p-value <0.001). Density of field sparrow (Spizella pusilla), a savanna associated species, was not particularly well captured by either field-measured or remotely sensed vegetation structure variables, but was best predicted by air photo image texture (R(2)  = 0.13, p-value = 0.002). Density of ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus), a woodland associated species, was best predicted by pixel-level satellite data (mean NDVI, R(2)  = 0.54, p-value <0.001). Surprisingly and interestingly, remotely sensed vegetation structure measures (i.e., image texture) were often better predictors of avian density and species richness than field-measured vegetation structure, and thus show promise as a valuable tool for mapping habitat quality and characterizing biodiversity across broad areas.

Concepts: Habitat, Prediction, Habitats, Grassland, Remote sensing, American sparrow, Birds of the United States, Spizella


There is great interest in the restoration and conservation of coastal habitats for protection from flooding and erosion. This is evidenced by the growing number of analyses and reviews of the effectiveness of habitats as natural defences and increasing funding world-wide for nature-based defences-i.e. restoration projects aimed at coastal protection; yet, there is no synthetic information on what kinds of projects are effective and cost effective for this purpose. This paper addresses two issues critical for designing restoration projects for coastal protection: (i) a synthesis of the costs and benefits of projects designed for coastal protection (nature-based defences) and (ii) analyses of the effectiveness of coastal habitats (natural defences) in reducing wave heights and the biophysical parameters that influence this effectiveness. We (i) analyse data from sixty-nine field measurements in coastal habitats globally and examine measures of effectiveness of mangroves, salt-marshes, coral reefs and seagrass/kelp beds for wave height reduction; (ii) synthesise the costs and coastal protection benefits of fifty-two nature-based defence projects and; (iii) estimate the benefits of each restoration project by combining information on restoration costs with data from nearby field measurements. The analyses of field measurements show that coastal habitats have significant potential for reducing wave heights that varies by habitat and site. In general, coral reefs and salt-marshes have the highest overall potential. Habitat effectiveness is influenced by: a) the ratios of wave height-to-water depth and habitat width-to-wavelength in coral reefs; and b) the ratio of vegetation height-to-water depth in salt-marshes. The comparison of costs of nature-based defence projects and engineering structures show that salt-marshes and mangroves can be two to five times cheaper than a submerged breakwater for wave heights up to half a metre and, within their limits, become more cost effective at greater depths. Nature-based defence projects also report benefits ranging from reductions in storm damage to reductions in coastal structure costs.

Concepts: Habitat, Critical thinking, Costs, Coral reef, Ratio, Cost, Coastal and oceanic landforms, Coastal geography


Free-roaming cats are a common element of urban landscapes worldwide, often causing controversy regarding their impacts on ecological systems and public health. We monitored cats within natural habitat fragments in the Chicago metropolitan area to characterize population demographics, disease prevalence, movement patterns and habitat selection, in addition to assessing the possible influence of coyotes on cats. The population was dominated by adults of both sexes, and 24% of adults were in reproductive condition. Annual survival rate was relatively high (S=0.70, SE=0.10), with vehicles and predation the primary causes of death. Size of annual home range varied by sex, but not reproductive status or body weight. We observed partitioning of the landscape by cats and coyotes, with little interspecific overlap between core areas of activity. Coyotes selected for natural habitats whereas cats selected for developed areas such as residences. Free-roaming cats were in better condition than we predicted, but their use of natural habitat fragments, and presumably their ecological impact, appeared to be limited by coyotes through intraguild competition.

Concepts: Natural selection, Habitat, Biology, Demography, Ecology, Natural resource, Habitat conservation, Habitat fragmentation


Urbanisation modifies landscapes at multiple scales, impacting the local climate and changing the extent and quality of natural habitats. These habitat modifications significantly alter species distributions and can result in increased abundance of select species which are able to exploit novel ecosystems. We examined the effect of urbanisation at local and landscape scales on the body size, lipid reserves and ovary weight of Nephila plumipes, an orb weaving spider commonly found in both urban and natural landscapes. Habitat variables at landscape, local and microhabitat scales were integrated to create a series of indexes that quantified the degree of urbanisation at each site. Spider size was negatively associated with vegetation cover at a landscape scale, and positively associated with hard surfaces and anthropogenic disturbance on a local and microhabitat scale. Ovary weight increased in higher socioeconomic areas and was positively associated with hard surfaces and leaf litter at a local scale. The larger size and increased reproductive capacity of N.plumipes in urban areas show that some species benefit from the habitat changes associated with urbanisation. Our results also highlight the importance of incorporating environmental variables from multiple scales when quantifying species responses to landscape modification.

Concepts: Habitat, Urban area, Habitats, Vegetation, Landscape ecology, Natural landscape, Orb-weaver spider, Habitat fragmentation


The IUCN Red List has assessed the global distributions of the majority of the world’s amphibians, birds and mammals. Yet these assessments lack explicit reference to widely available, remotely-sensed data that can sensibly inform a species' risk of extinction. Our first goal is to add additional quantitative data to the existing standardised process that IUCN employs. Secondly, we ask: do our results suggest species of concern-those at considerably greater risk than hitherto appreciated? Thirdly, these assessments are not only important on a species-by-species basis. By combining distributions of species of concern, we map conservation priorities. We ask to what degree these areas are currently protected and how might knowledge from remote sensing modify the priorities? Finally, we develop a quick and simple method to identify and modify the priority setting in a landscape where natural habitats are disappearing rapidly and so where conventional species' assessments might be too slow to respond. Tropical, mainland Southeast Asia is under exceptional threat, yet relatively poorly known. Here, additional quantitative measures may be particularly helpful. This region contains over 122, 183, and 214 endemic mammals, birds, and amphibians, respectively, of which the IUCN considers 37, 21, and 37 threatened. When corrected for the amount of remaining natural habitats within the known elevation preferences of species, the average sizes of species ranges shrink to <40% of their published ranges. Some 79 mammal, 49 bird, and 184 amphibian ranges are <20,000km2-an area at which IUCN considers most other species to be threatened. Moreover, these species are not better protected by the existing network of protected areas than are species that IUCN accepts as threatened. Simply, there appear to be considerably more species at risk than hitherto appreciated. Furthermore, incorporating remote sensing data showing where habitat loss is prevalent changes the locations of conservation priorities.

Concepts: Habitat, Southeast Asia, Species, Endangered species, Extinction, Remote sensing, Conservation, IUCN Red List


One of the key gaps in understanding the impacts of predation by small mammalian predators on prey is how habitat structure affects the hunting success of small predators, such as feral cats. These effects are poorly understood due to the difficulty of observing actual hunting behaviours. We attached collar-mounted video cameras to feral cats living in a tropical savanna environment in northern Australia, and measured variation in hunting success among different microhabitats (open areas, dense grass and complex rocks). From 89 hours of footage, we recorded 101 hunting events, of which 32 were successful. Of these kills, 28% were not eaten. Hunting success was highly dependent on microhabitat structure surrounding prey, increasing from 17% in habitats with dense grass or complex rocks to 70% in open areas. This research shows that habitat structure has a profound influence on the impacts of small predators on their prey. This has broad implications for management of vegetation and disturbance processes (like fire and grazing) in areas where feral cats threaten native fauna. Maintaining complex vegetation cover can reduce predation rates of small prey species from feral cat predation.

Concepts: Habitat, Predation, Cat, Grassland, Hunting, Herbivore, Dog, Feral cat


We do not expect non air-breathing aquatic animals to exhibit positive buoyancy. Sharks, for example, rely on oil-filled livers instead of gas-filled swim bladders to increase their buoyancy, but are nonetheless ubiquitously regarded as either negatively or neutrally buoyant. Deep-sea sharks have particularly large, oil-filled livers, and are believed to be neutrally buoyant in their natural habitat, but this has never been confirmed. To empirically determine the buoyancy status of two species of deep-sea sharks (bluntnose sixgill sharks, Hexanchus griseus, and a prickly shark, Echinorhinus cookei) in their natural habitat, we used accelerometer-magnetometer data loggers to measure their swimming performance. Both species of deep-sea sharks showed similar diel vertical migrations: they swam at depths of 200-300 m at night and deeper than 500 m during the day. Ambient water temperature was around 15°C at 200-300 m but below 7°C at depths greater than 500 m. During vertical movements, all deep-sea sharks showed higher swimming efforts during descent than ascent to maintain a given swimming speed, and were able to glide uphill for extended periods (several minutes), indicating that these deep-sea sharks are in fact positively buoyant in their natural habitats. This positive buoyancy may adaptive for stealthy hunting (i.e. upward gliding to surprise prey from underneath) or may facilitate evening upward migrations when muscle temperatures are coolest, and swimming most sluggish, after spending the day in deep, cold water. Positive buoyancy could potentially be widespread in fish conducting daily vertical migration in deep-sea habitats.

Concepts: Habitat, Temperature, Habitat conservation, Shark, Bluntnose sixgill shark, Prickly shark, Echinorhinus, Echinorhinidae


Degradation of natural habitats due to urbanization is a major cause of biodiversity loss. Anthropogenic impacts can drive phase shifts from productive, complex ecosystems to less desirable, less diverse systems that provide fewer services. Macroalgae are the dominant habitat-forming organisms on temperate coastlines, providing habitat and food to entire communities. In recent decades, there has been a decline in macroalgal cover along some urbanised shorelines, leading to a shift from diverse algal forests to more simple turf algae or barren habitats. Phyllospora comosa, a major habitat forming macroalga in south-eastern Australia, has disappeared from the urban shores of Sydney. Its disappearance is coincident with heavy sewage outfall discharges along the metropolitan coast during 1970s and 1980s. Despite significant improvements in water-quality since that time, Phyllospora has not re-established. We experimentally transplanted adult Phyllospora into two rocky reefs in the Sydney metropolitan region to examine the model that Sydney is now suitable for the survival and recruitment of Phyllospora and thus assess the possibility of restoring Phyllospora back onto reefs where it was once abundant. Survival of transplanted individuals was high overall, but also spatially variable: at one site most individuals were grazed, while at the other site survival was similar to undisturbed algae and procedural controls. Transplanted algae reproduced and recruitment rates were higher than in natural populations at one experimental site, with high survival of new recruits after almost 18 months. Low supply and settlement success of propagules in the absence of adults and herbivory (in some places) emerge as three potential processes that may have been preventing natural re-establishment of this alga. Understanding of the processes and interactions that shape this system are necessary to provide ecologically sensible goals and the information needed to successfully restore these underwater forests.

Concepts: Algae, Biodiversity, Habitat, Plant, Coral reef, Ecosystem, Kelp, Seaweed