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Move it or lose it: Predicted effects of culverts and population density on Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) connectivity

September 28, 2023

Roadways and railways can reduce wildlife movements across landscapes, negatively impacting population connectivity. Connectivity may be improved by structures that allow safe passage across linear barriers, but connectivity could be adversely influenced by low population densities. The Mojave desert tortoise is threatened by habitat loss, fragmentation, and population declines. The tortoise continues to decline as disturbance increases across the Mojave Desert in the southwestern United States. While underground crossing structures, like hydrological culverts, have begun receiving attention, population density has not been considered in tortoise connectivity. Our work asks a novel question: How do culverts and population density affect connectivity and potentially drive genetic and demographic patterns? To explore the role of culverts and population density, we used agent-based spatially explicit forward-in-time simulations of gene flow. We constructed resistance surfaces with a range of barriers to movement and representative of tortoise habitat with anthropogenic disturbance. We predicted connectivity under variable population densities. Simulations were run for 200 non-overlapping generations (3400 years) with 30 replicates using 20 microsatellite loci. We evaluated population genetic structure and diversity and found that culverts would not entirely negate the effects of linear barriers, but gene flow improved. Our results also indicated that density is important for connectivity. Low densities resulted in declines regardless of the landscape barrier scenario (> 75% population census size, > 97% effective population size). Results from our simulation using current anthropogenic disturbance predicted decreased population connectivity over time. Genetic and demographic effects were detectable within five generations (85 years) following disturbance with estimated losses in effective population size of 69%. The pronounced declines in effective population size indicate this could be a useful monitoring metric. We suggest management strategies that improve connectivity, such as roadside fencing tied to culverts, conservation areas in a connected network, and development restricted to disturbed areas.

Publication Year 2023
Title Move it or lose it: Predicted effects of culverts and population density on Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) connectivity
DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0286820
Authors Kirsten E. Dutcher, Kenneth E. Nussear, Jill S. Heaton, Todd C. Esque, A. G. Vandergast
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title PLoS ONE
Index ID 70249582
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center