Data-driven discovery of the spatial scales of habitat choice by elephants.

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Setting conservation goals and management objectives relies on understanding animal habitat preferences. Models that predict preferences combine location data from tracked animals with environmental information, usually at a spatial resolution determined by the available data. This resolution may be biologically irrelevant for the species in question. Individuals likely integrate environmental characteristics over varying distances when evaluating their surroundings; we call this the scale of selection. Even a single characteristic might be viewed differently at different scales; for example, a preference for sheltering under trees does not necessarily imply a fondness for continuous forest. Multi-scale preference is likely to be particularly evident for animals that occupy coarsely heterogeneous landscapes like savannahs. We designed a method to identify scales at which species respond to resources and used these scales to build preference models. We represented different scales of selection by locally averaging, or smoothing, the environmental data using kernels of increasing radii. First, we examined each environmental variable separately across a spectrum of selection scales and found peaks of fit. These 'candidate' scales then determined the environmental data layers entering a multivariable conditional logistic model. We used model selection via AIC to determine the important predictors out of this set. We demonstrate this method using savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) inhabiting two parks in southern Africa. The multi-scale models were more parsimonious than models using environmental data at only the source resolution. Maps describing habitat preferences also improved when multiple scales were included, as elephants were more often in places predicted to have high neighborhood quality. We conclude that elephants select habitat based on environmental qualities at multiple scales. For them, and likely many other species, biologists should include multiple scales in models of habitat selection. Species environmental preferences and their geospatial projections will be more accurately represented, improving management decisions and conservation planning.





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Mashintonio, Andrew F, Stuart L Pimm, Grant M Harris, Rudi J van Aarde and Gareth J Russell (2014). Data-driven discovery of the spatial scales of habitat choice by elephants. PeerJ, 2(1). p. e504. 10.7717/peerj.504 Retrieved from

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Stuart L. Pimm

Doris Duke Distinguished Professor of Conservation Ecology in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences

Stuart Pimm is a world leader in the study of present-day extinctions and what can be done to prevent them. His research covers the reasons why species become extinct, how fast they do so, the global patterns of habitat loss and species extinction and, importantly, the management consequences of this research. Pimm received his BSc degree from Oxford University in 1971 and his Ph.D. from New Mexico State University in 1974. Pimm is the author of over 350 scientific papers and five books. He is one of the most highly cited environmental scientists. Pimm wrote the highly acclaimed assessment of the human impact to the planet: The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth in 2001. His commitment to the interface between science and policy has led to his testimony to both House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. He was worked and taught in Africa for nearly 30 years on elephants, most recently lions — through National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative — but always on topics that relate to the conservation of wildlife and the ecosystems on which they depend. Other research areas include the Everglades of Florida and tropical forests in South America, especially the Atlantic Coast forest of Brazil and the northern Andes — two of the world's "hotspots" for threatened species. His international honours include the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (2010), the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006), the Society for Conservation Biology’s Edward T. LaRoe III Memorial Award (2006), and the Marsh Award for Conservation Biology, from the Marsh Christian Trust (awarded by the Zoological Society of London in 2004). Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, awarded him the William Proctor Prize for Scientific Achievement in 2007. In 2019, he won the International Cosmos Prize, which recognised his founding and directing Saving Nature,, a non-profit that uses donations for carbon emissions offsets to fund local conservation groups in areas of exceptional tropical biodiversity to restore their degraded lands. 

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