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Ecogeography of the herpetofauna of a northern California watershed: linking species patterns to landscape processes

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Ecosystems are rapidly being altered and destabilized on a global scale, threatening native biota and compromising vital services provided to human society. We need to better understand the processes that can undermine ecosystem integrity (resistance-resilience) in order to devise strategies to ameliorate this trend. We used a herpetofaunal assemblage to first assess spatial patterns of biodiversity and then to discover the underlying landscape processes likely responsible for these patterns. Reptiles and amphibians are a phylogenetically diverse set of species with documented sensitivity to environmental perturbations. We examined ecogeographic patterns of these taxa in aquatic and riparian environments across the landscape mosaic of the Mattole River watershed of northern California, USA. We analyzed species distributions relative to three primary vegetation types (grassland, second-growth forest, late-seral forest) and two hydrologic regimes (perennial vs intermittent). We sought evidence for the processes behind these patterns by modeling animal distributions relative to multi-scale compositional, structural, and physical attributes of the vegetation or hydrologic type. Total herpetofaunal diversity was higher along perennial streams, with reptile diversity higher in mixed grassland. Amphibian and reptile richness, and reptile evenness, varied significantly among the three vegetations. Evidence indicated that distinct assemblages were associated with each end of a seral continuum. Four amphibians were more abundant in late-seral forest, while two amphibians and two reptiles were more abundant in second-growth forest, or mixed grassland, or both. Two amphibians were more abundant along intermittent streams. Models for predicting reptile richness, or abundances of the two amphibian assemblages, indicated water temperature was the best predictor variable. Based on these results and the physiological limits of several sensitive species, we determined the primary processes influencing faunal assemblage patterns on this landscape have been vegetation changes resulting from the harvesting of late-seral forests and the clearing of forest for pasture. Comparing past with present landscape mosaics indicated that these changes have transformed the dominant amphibian and reptile species assemblage from a mostly cold-water and cool forest-associated assemblage to one now dominated by warm-water and mixed grassland/woodland species.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: August 1, 2005

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