A new international study has shown that the consequences of habitat loss on natural communities is very significant, in ways that have not previously been measured.

The study, co-authored by Dr. Miguel Lurgi at Swansea University in England, shows that understanding the way habitat is destroyed is key to understanding the effects of habitat destruction on the stability and functioning of ecosystems.

“Ecologists and practitioners tend to assess the impact of human activities on biodiversity by measuring the extinction rates of species,” said study co-author Daniel Montoya of the Theoretical and Experimental Ecology Station in Moulis, France. “However, biodiversity comprises elements other than single species, such as the interactions between species and their stability over time and space.”

“These additional, and sometimes overlooked, properties are key to the functioning of ecosystems. They are the missed component biodiversity loss that accompanies or precedes species extinctions,” Montoya added.

Natural habitats can be destroyed randomly or in a clustered way, Montoya said. For example, the construction of a road and the construction of new urban areas affect biodiversity differently. The way in which habitat loss happens and the geographical space that is destroyed can affect the mobility of individual animals, which can further decrease the stability of populations due to lack of biodiversity in areas cut off from other members of a species.

This begs the question: How does habitat loss happen in real landscapes around the world?

“It depends on the spatial scale we are looking at,” said Dr. Lurgi. “Yet, we explored several scenarios of habitat loss and our results suggest that community responses are approximately gradual and predictable based on degree of spatial autocorrelation of the lost habitat.”

In other words, the researchers can predict the response of the wildlife community based on the type and amount of the habitat loss.

“We suggest that, irrespective of a positive, negative, or neutral change in local diversity, spatial patterns of habitat loss largely influence the structure and dynamics of biodiversity in very different, contrasting way.”

So, local biodiversity doesn’t matter as much in terms of species preservation as whether the patterns of habitat loss are random or clustered.

The researchers hope that their findings will be used to inform environmental science and policymaking in the future. They want to see habitat loss space and patterns and aspects of community structure and stability become part of conservation planning.

“I think it is important to develop theory and models to help us understand these effects and allow us to come up with better ways to tackle habitat loss and other sources of anthropogenic change to better conserve biodiversity,” Dr. Lurgi said.

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