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15.5: Managing and Facilitating Movement Dynamics

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    Some ecosystems are transient in nature—their character is temporary and will change because of disturbance and succession. Consequently, species that occupy those transient habitats are bound to be naturally extirpated at one time or another. Consider, for example, a small population of wildflowers occurring in a river’s floodplain; at some stage, there is going to be a flood that will wash away those flowers. But the flooding also disperses seeds downstream, allowing for new wildflower populations to establish in suitable habitat elsewhere. These shifting populations linked by movements between them are better characterized as a metapopulation (a “population of populations”) (Figure 15.5.1) consisting of several subpopulations. For some metapopulations, every subpopulation is transient: their distribution changes dramatically with each generation. Other metapopulations involve relatively permanent subpopulations with only a few individuals dispersing each generation. Some metapopulations consist of one or more source populations whose sizes are stable or increasing, and several sink populations whose sizes fluctuate depending on environmental conditions. Some sink subpopulations may undergo such dramatic fluctuations that they would be extirpated in unfavorable years were it not for population rescue by immigrants from source populations.

    Figure 15.5.1 A range of metapopulation patterns is possible in nature. In this illustration, population size is represented by the size of the circle, while movement direction and intensity are indicated by the direction and thickness of the arrows. After White, 1996, CC BY 4.0.

    Habitat fragmentation threatens metapopulation dynamics by reducing opportunities for dispersal across the landscape. When there is too little movement of individuals between habitat fragments, the dwindling subpopulations within those fragments are at risk of extirpation or even extinction. In contrast, well-connected subpopulations maintain themselves by colonizing empty niches, exchanging genetic material, and adapting to changing environments. Dispersal also maintains critical ecosystem processes, such as pollination and seed dispersal. Consequently, conservation biologists have invested significant resources in recent years to maintain and restore wildlife movements within fragmented ecosystems.

    Connectivity in terrestrial ecosystems

    Maintaining and restoring ecosystem connectivity—the ability of ecosystems to facilitate the dispersal of individuals between different areas—involves maintaining and restoring wildlife movements that are (at risk of being) impeded by human activities. The most popular method to maintain (or restore) connectivity in a fragmented landscape is to maintain (or restore) habitat linkages, also called wildlife corridors, habitat corridors, dispersal corridors, or movement corridors. All these terms refer to continuous tracts of suitable habitat with little to no dispersal barriers that connect otherwise isolated habitat patches and populations.

    Maintaining and restoring ecosystem connectivity is an important strategy for conserving wildlife whose movements are impeded by human activities.

    Connectivity is important in every ecosystem on Earth. However, given the linear characteristic of riparian zones along rivers and stream—and hence a larger proportional impact of edge effects —we might consider connectivity in these spatially restricted systems to be particularly important (Figure 15.5.2). Protecting and restoring riparian zones as habitat linkages resonates with a variety of people because these areas provide a range of important ecosystem services, including flood control and water purification. Conservationists can tap into this energy by lobbying for laws that prohibit activities such as logging, housing, and industrial developments within a certain distance from a river or stream. By protecting ecosystem services associated with riparian zones, these laws simultaneously also maintain wildlife refuges (Monadjem and Reside, 2008), source populations (Vosse et al., 2008), and habitat linkages (Bentrup et al., 2012; McLennan and Plumptre, 2012). In contrast, inadequate protection of riparian ecosystems not only compromises connectivity, but also negatively affect species not overtly dependent on these buffer areas. For example, research from Southeast Asia has shown that losing riparian ecosystems in an otherwise palm oil dominated landscape reduced stream quality, which in turn reduced local fish diversity by up to 36% (Giam et al., 2015). In contrast, protecting riparian zones were found to increase palm oil yields (Horton et al., 2018). With so many riparian areas currently being degraded and destroyed, there is an urgent need for stronger riparian protection laws, and for more effective enforcement of those laws.

    Figure 15.5.2 Protecting riparian zones such as this one along the Turkwel River in northern Kenya is an effective strategy for maintaining connectivity and securing a range of ecosystem services. Photograph by Bernard Dupont,, CC BY-SA 2.0.

    At times, when it is impractical to establish or restore continuous habitat linkages, biologists may opt to protect and restore stepping stone habitats (Figure 15.5.3). As the name implies, stepping stone habitats are a special type of habitat linkage that facilitate dispersal along a patchwork of isolated habitat patches within a matrix of unsuitable or inhospitable habitat. Stepping stones thereby divide long dispersal events through a long stretch of inhospitable terrain up into shorter, and thus more manageable, sections. Stepping stone habitats are particularly important for migratory species that rest and refuel at stop-over sites between the end-points of their migratory route (Runge et al., 2015)—each stop-over site can be viewed as a stepping stone habitat. Prominent examples of stepping stone habitats that deserve protection include sacred forests which can act as stop-over sites for migratory forest birds; wetlands and estuaries, which can act as stop-over sites by migratory waterbirds; and small forest reserves, which can act as stepping stones between a network of other protected areas (Riggio and Caro, 2017).

    Figure 15.5.3 Methods to reconnect fragmented metapopulations (or maintain connectivity) can take many forms. The three main strategies are to maintain or restore wildlife corridors (e.g. to link two isolated forest patches), maintain or restore stepping stone habitats (e.g. a patchwork of wetlands or sacred forests), or facilitating movement through the matrix with sustainable land use tenures (e.g. removing fences). After Bennett, 2004, CC BY 4.0.
    Box 15.5.1

    Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) are a mainly migratory bird species that nest in marshes and bogs and rely on wetlands and open fields for stopover points during migration. Wetlands, agricultural fields, and river valleys serve as stepping stones on the migratory route from winter grounds in Mexico, central California, and the southern US, to breeding grounds in northern North America and Siberia. Although as of 2021, none of the migratory Sandhill Crane populations are declining, their future depends on suitable breeding and wintering habitat and fields and wetlands along migration routes. Wetland loss and land conversion for development are of concern. Local non-migratory subspecies in Cuba and Mississippi are endangered due to habitat loss. (

    Fighting Sandhill Cranes

    Male Sandhill Cranes. Photo by Eric Afyouni, WikiCommons, CC-BY-3.0

    Connectivity in freshwater ecosystems

    Dams have always played an important role in hydropower generation and securing a year-round supply of water for farms, industries, and cities. Unfortunately, recent evidence suggests that reservoirs may create more problems than they solve. Of concern is their contribution to greenhouse gases (Deemer et al., 2016), as well as their role in blocking dispersal of aquatic organisms. To counter these negative impacts, governments across the world are decommissioning and removing dams and other types of artificial water impoundments. For instance, over the past 30 years more than 1,174 dams were removed in the USA; the 72 dams removed in 2016 alone restored more than 3,000 km of streams (Thomas-Blate, 2016). Similar efforts are also underway in Europe (, where river restoration efforts have been initiated at over 1,100 locations across 31 countries. Unfortunately, not only are efforts to restore freshwater connectivity lagging across Africa; in many cases, even more rivers are currently being dammed (Winemiller et al., 2016).

    While dams play an important role in hydropower generation and securing a year-round supply of water, recent evidence suggests that they create many environmental problems, including blocking species dispersal.

    Connectivity in marine ecosystems

    Ecosystem connectivity is also important in marine ecosystems. Many marine organisms, including economically important species, breed and feed in different areas at different times of the year, and use established dispersal routes to move between those areas. It is thus important to protect these dispersal routes so we can maintain these marine ecosystems and ecosystem services.

    Maintaining movement dynamics in marine seascapes involves protecting and restoring marine corridors, estuarine linkages, and coastal habitat linkages.

    There are three main strategies to maintain and restore movement dynamics of marine seascapes. First, marine corridors—zones used by whales and other marine species to move between feeding and breeding grounds—should be protected. Marine biologists in several countries successfully reduced collisions between whales and ocean-faring vessels with minor adjustments to shipping lanes that previously crossed marine corridors (Silber et al., 2012). Second, estuarine linkages should be protected, and restored where needed.

    Management considerations in connectivity conservation

    While intuitively appealing, there are a few potential drawbacks to connectivity that conservation planners should consider when planning to establish new habitat linkages (reviewed in Haddad et al., 2014). Prominently, connecting historically isolated populations may lead to outbreeding depression, for example when populations with different local adaptations are connected. Habitat linkages may also act as bottlenecks that expose dispersing animals to greater risks of predation and enable pests and diseases to spread easier. Care must be taken to ensure that wildlife do indeed perceive the landscape “connected”; a habitat linkage that may look good to the human eye may in fact be perceived as inhospitable habitat to wildlife (Newmark, 2008). A recent study from the Americas has shown that the habitat quality of a single stepping stone habitat can determine whether a migration is successful or not (Gómez et al., 2017).

    This page titled 15.5: Managing and Facilitating Movement Dynamics is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.