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Comparing species and measures of landscape structure as indicators of conservation importance

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1. The use of indicators to identify areas of conservation importance has been challenged on several grounds, but nonetheless retains appeal as no more parsimonious approach exists. Among the many variants, two indicator strategies stand out: the use of indicator species and the use of metrics of landscape structure. While the first has been thoroughly studied, the same cannot be said about the latter. We aimed to contrast the relative efficacy of species-based and landscape-based indicators by: (i) comparing their ability to reflect changes in community integrity at regional and landscape spatial scales, (ii) assessing their sensitivity to changes in data resolution, and (iii) quantifying the degree to which indicators that are generated in one landscape or at one spatial scale can be transferred to additional landscapes or scales.

2. We used data from more than 7000 bird captures in 65 sites from six 10 000-ha landscapes with different proportions of forest cover in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil. Indicator species and landscape-based indicators were tested in terms of how effective they were in reflecting changes in community integrity, defined as deviations in bird community composition from control areas.

3. At the regional scale, indicator species provided more robust depictions of community integrity than landscape-based indicators. At the landscape scale, however, landscape-based indicators performed more effectively, more consistently and were also more transferable among landscapes. The effectiveness of high resolution landscape-based indicators was reduced by just 12% when these were used to explain patterns of community integrity in independent data sets. By contrast, the effectiveness of species-based indicators was reduced by 33%.

4.Synthesis and applications. The use of indicator species proved to be effective; however their results were variable and sensitive to changes in scale and resolution, and their application requires extensive and time-consuming field work. Landscape-based indicators were not only effective but were also much less context-dependent. The use of landscape-based indicators may allow the rapid identification of priority areas for conservation and restoration, and indicate which restoration strategies should be pursued, using remotely sensed imagery. We suggest that landscape-based indicators might often be a better, simpler, and cheaper strategy for informing decisions in conservation.
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Keywords: Atlantic Forest; Umbrella Index; biodiversity indicators; habitat fragmentation; habitat loss; landscape metrics; surrogates

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Division of Biology, Imperial College London, Silwood Park Campus, Ascot, Berkshire SL5 7PY, UK 2: Departamento de Ecologia, Instituto de Biociências, Universidade de São Paulo, Rua do Matão, 321, travessa 14, 05508-900, São Paulo, SP, Brazil

Publication date: June 1, 2011

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