Removing forest canopy cover restores a reptile assemblage

Publisher:
Ecological Society of America
Publication Type:
Journal Article
Citation:
Ecological Applications, 2011, 21 (1), pp. 274 - 280
Issue Date:
2011-01
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Humans are rapidly altering natural systems, leading to changes in the distribution and abundance of species. However, so many changes are occurring simultaneously (e.g., climate change, habitat fragmentation) that it is difficult to determine the cause of population fluctuations from correlational studies. We used a manipulative field experiment to determine whether forest canopy cover directly influences reptile assemblages on rock outcrops in southeastern Australia. Our experimental design consisted of three types of rock outcrops: (1) shady sites in which overgrown vegetation was manually removed (n=25); (2) overgrown controls (n= 30); and (3) sun-exposed controls (n= 20). Following canopy removal, we monitored reptile responses over 30 months. Canopy removal increased reptile species richness, the proportion of shelter sites used by reptiles, and relative abundances of five species that prefer sun-exposed habitats. Our manipulation also decreased the abundances of two shade-tolerant species. Canopy cover thus directly influences this reptile assemblage, with the effects of canopy removal being dependent on each species' habitat preferences (i.e., selection or avoidance of sun-exposed habitat). Our study suggests that increases in canopy cover can cause declines of open-habitat specialists, as previously suggested by correlative studies from a wide range of taxa. Given that reptile colonization of manipulated outcrops occurred rapidly, artificially opening the canopy in ecologically informed ways could help to conserve imperiled species with patchy distributions and low vagility that are threatened by vegetation overgrowth. One such species is Australia's most endangered snake, the broadheaded snake (Hoplocephalus bungaroides
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