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Land management practices for combating desertification cause species replacement of desert lizards

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Patch structural complexity affects local species richness and population densities. Anthropogenic disturbance may alter complexity and heterogeneity, resulting in changes in community structure. Most studies in this area have dealt with human-induced habitat degradation. We investigated a converse situation, in which anthropogenic activity increases productivity and complexity of an arid habitat.

Recently, large areas in the northern Negev Desert have been altered: a series of contour catchments was constructed to accumulate run-off to support planted trees. We examined the effect of patch alteration by focusing on the lizard assemblage in the planted plots. Seven pairs of plots were established, one plot from each pair in a natural area and the other in an adjacent, altered slope. Lizards were captured using pitfall traps and environmental parameters were measured. To isolate the effects of trees as perches for avian predators, we ‘planted’ artificial trees in a loess plain and investigated the effect on an endemic lizard.

The structure of the lizard assemblage in the planted plots differed from that of the natural plots. Planted plots had a higher proportion of Mediterranean lizards and fewer desert species. Two local lizard species disappeared from the mosaic area of planted and natural plots. In addition, avian predators spent longer time in the artificial tree plots and reduced the lizard density compared to the natural plots.

The modification to the habitat generated only moderate changes in structure of the natural vegetation and this could not account for the observed changes in the lizard assemblage. Changes in the spatial use of the plots by avian predators was identified as the mechanism behind the observed distribution of lizard species.

Synthesis and applications. We argue that anthropogenic habitat modifications such as afforestation, urbanization, etc., can induce indirect biotic effects that may change the way and the scale at which different species respond to the habitat change. Such structural alteration may lead to species replacement and even to local extinction of specialist species. In order to protect biodiversity during large-scale management projects, alteration of biotic interactions should be considered in advance and large unaltered patches should be protected, otherwise indirect effects might cause greater impacts than the structural manipulation itself.

Journal of Applied Ecology (2006) 43, 701–709

doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2006.01177.x
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Keywords: Acanthodactylus beershebensis; avian predators; combating desertification; conservation; habitat complexity; spatial heterogeneity

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: August 1, 2006

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