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Linear and landscape disturbances alter Mojave desert tortoise movement behavior

June 21, 2023

Introduction: Animal movements are influenced by landscape features; disturbances to the landscape can alter movements, dispersal, and ultimately connectivity among populations. Faster or longer movements adjacent to a localized disturbance or within disturbed areas could indicate reduced habitat quality whereas slower or shorter movements and reduced movements may indicate greater availability of resources. The Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) is a threatened species that is challenged by anthropogenic disturbances.

Methods: We studied tortoise movements using Global Positioning System (GPS) loggers at multiple sites in the Mojave Desert of Nevada and California. Tortoises at our sites encountered localized, linear human infrastructure, including paved roads, dirt roads, and fences, as well as landscape-scale disturbances [wildfire, off highway vehicle use (OHV), livestock grazing area]. We fit two-state (moving and encamped) Hidden Markov models to GPS logger data to infer how tortoise movement behavior relates to anthropogenic and natural features.

Results: We found that temporal covariates, individual-level random effects (intercepts), and sex best explained state transition probability in all sites. We compared relationships between tortoise movement and linear disturbances, which varied depending on site and context. Tortoises made longer movements within the OHV recreation area, near most dirt roads, and near a low-traffic paved road, indicating that tortoises avoid these habitat disturbances. Conversely, tortoises made shorter movements in areas of higher slope and near highways, suggesting that these features may restrict movement or provide resources that result in prolonged use (e.g., forage or drinking locations). Tortoises that encountered fences around utility-scale solar installations were more active and made longer movements near fences, indicative of pacing behavior.

Discussion: These results provide insight into how different disturbances alter tortoise movement behavior and modify tortoise habitat use, providing information that can be used to manage tortoise habitat.

Publication Year 2023
Title Linear and landscape disturbances alter Mojave desert tortoise movement behavior
DOI 10.3389/fevo.2023.971337
Authors Steven J. Hromada, Todd C. Esque, A. G. Vandergast, K. Kristina Drake, Felicia Chen, Benjamin O Gottsacker, Jordan Andrew Swart, Ken E Nussear
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution
Index ID 70246267
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center