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Natural, human and spatial constraints to expanding populations of otters in the Iberian Peninsula

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Abstract Aim 

To determine the relationships between otter (Lutra lutra) distribution dynamics and environmental and spatial constraints over a 20-year period. Location 

Andalusia, southern Iberian Peninsula. Methods 

We synthesized otter distribution data from three otter surveys (1985, 1995 and 2005) using subcatchment areas defined by hydrological barriers. Subcatchments were characterized by two ‘natural’ (climatic and orographic variables) and two ‘human’ (land use and population density) gradients. In addition, we calculated two contagion variables (the distance to previously occupied subcatchments and the percentage of occupied subcatchments within a 50 km buffer) for consecutively surveyed subcatchments. Results 

Between 1985 and 2005 the percentage of subcatchments with otters present increased from 42% to 72%. Otters tended to be rare or absent from human-dominated areas. Anthropogenic gradients were better predictors of otter distribution than natural ones. Human and natural gradients showed strong covariation, but for any value of the natural gradients otters tended to be present in subcatchments with lower human impacts. Colonization of new subcatchments was found to be strongly related to contagion variables and expansion rates were slower than those estimated in other studies. Newly colonized areas tended to be located in areas with intermediate human influence, while repeated absences occurred mainly in areas where human impact was most severe. Main conclusions 

Our results suggest that recent otter expansion across Andalusia is a reflection of large-scale improvement in environmental conditions. Otter populations that survived the period of strong and generalized declines appear to be acting as sources from which neighbouring areas are colonized, probably aided by improved water quality and increases in food availability. However, the further expansion of otters into their full original range is likely to be constrained by human-impacted landscapes.
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Keywords: Andalusia; Lutra lutra; Mediterranean streams; freshwater environments; landscape gradients; mammals; otter surveys; recolonization; recovering species

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: The Ecology Centre, School of Biological Sciences, The University Queensland, St Lucia, Qld 4072, Australia 2: Grup d’Ecologia del Paisatge, Àrea de Biodiversitat, Centre Tecnològic Forestal de Catalunya, Carretera vella de Sant Llorenç de Morunys km 2, 25280 Solsona, Catalonia, Spain

Publication date: 2010-12-01

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