Extinction filters mediate the global effects of habitat fragmentation on animals

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Science  06 Dec 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6470, pp. 1236-1239
DOI: 10.1126/science.aax9387

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Vulnerability to habitat fragmentation

Habitat fragmentation caused by human activities has consequences for the distribution and movement of organisms. Betts et al. present a global analysis of how exposure to habitat fragmentation affects the composition of ecological communities (see the Perspective by Hargreaves). In a dataset consisting of 4489 animal species, regions that historically experienced little disturbance tended to harbor a higher proportion of species vulnerable to fragmentation. Species in more frequently disturbed regions were more resilient. High-latitude areas historically experienced more disturbance and harbor more resilient species, which suggests that extinction has removed fragmentation-sensitive species. Thus, conservation efforts to limit fragmentation are particularly important in the tropics.

Science, this issue p. 1236; see also p. 1196


Habitat loss is the primary driver of biodiversity decline worldwide, but the effects of fragmentation (the spatial arrangement of remaining habitat) are debated. We tested the hypothesis that forest fragmentation sensitivity—affected by avoidance of habitat edges—should be driven by historical exposure to, and therefore species’ evolutionary responses to disturbance. Using a database containing 73 datasets collected worldwide (encompassing 4489 animal species), we found that the proportion of fragmentation-sensitive species was nearly three times as high in regions with low rates of historical disturbance compared with regions with high rates of disturbance (i.e., fires, glaciation, hurricanes, and deforestation). These disturbances coincide with a latitudinal gradient in which sensitivity increases sixfold at low versus high latitudes. We conclude that conservation efforts to limit edges created by fragmentation will be most important in the world’s tropical forests.

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