Wetland Suitability and Connectivity for Trans-Saharan Migratory Waterbirds

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Ronny Merken, Evelien Deboelpaep, Joachim Teunen, Santiago Saura, Nico Koedam

Merken R, Deboelpaep E, Teunen J, Saura S, Koedam N (2015) Wetland Suitability and Connectivity for Trans-Saharan Migratory Waterbirds. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0135445. doi:10.1371/journal.


To complete their life cycle waterbirds rely on patchily distributed and often ephemeral wetlands along their migration route in a vast unsuitable matrix. However, further loss and degradation of remaining wetland habitats might lead to a configuration and size of stopovers that is no longer sufficient to ensure long-term survival of waterbird populations. By identifying optimal conservation targets to maintain overall habitat availability en route, we can accommodate an as yet absent functional connectivity component in larger management frameworks for migratory waterbirds, such as the Ramsar Convention and the EU Natura 2000 Network. Using a graph-based habitat availability metric (Equivalent Connected Area) we determine the functional connectivity of wetland networks for seven migratory waterbirds with divergent habitat requirements. Analyses are performed at two spatial extents both spanning the Mediterranean Sea and centered around Greece (Balkan-Cyrenaica and Greece-Cyrenaica). We create species-specific suitable habitat maps and account for human disturbance by species-specific disturbance buffers, based on expert estimates of Flight Initiation Distances. At both spatial extents we quantitatively determine the habitat networks’ overall functional connectivity and identify wetland sites that are crucial for maintaining a well-connected network. We show that the wetland networks for both spatial extents are relatively well connected and identify several wetland sites in Greece and Libya as important for maintaining connectivity. The application of disturbance buffers results in wetland site-specific reduction of suitable habitat area (0.90–7.36%) and an overall decrease of the network’s connectivity (0.65–6.82%). In addition, we show that the habitat networks of a limited set of species can be combined into a single network which accounts for their autoecological requirements. We conclude that targeted management in few but specific wetland complexes could benefit migratory waterbird populations. Deterioration of these vital wetland sites in Greece and Libya will have disproportionate consequences to the waterbird populations they support.

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